Non-profit trial to speed up embryonic stem cell research through patent narrowing

From The Scientist by Cathy Tran: At the request of a coalition of non-profit groups, which was initiated by groups in California, a state that has a lot at stake as a result Proposition 71, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) patentis reexamining patents covering all primate embryonic stem cells, as well as stem-cell culturing techniques, held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). The patent was held by University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher James Thomson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison developmental biologist whose group was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cell lines in 1998. The groups challenging the patents argue that the methods for isolating a primate stem cell line were obvious based on previous work and therefore not patentable. Patenting all human embryonic stem cells is “like Microsoft patenting computing,” said John Simpson of California’s Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, one of the groups challenging the patents. “It’s overreaching.” According to stem cell researcher Jeanne Loring of the Burnham Institute, the technique used by Thomson to cultivate the human embryonic cells was the same method used to make mouse embryonic stem cell lines in 1981. Loring said the first person to isolate human stem cells was Ariff Bongso at the National University of Singapore in 1994. Thomson, however, maintains that his discovery was far from obvious. “In the early 1990s, when we started this work, it was not at all clear that the isolation of human embryonic stem cells was really possible, as other groups had tried and failed,” he told The Scientist in an email. Mahendra Rao predicts that there will be a narrowing of the patents to the lines originally generated by Thomson. Such a decision would alleviate the concerns of many scientists who feel that the WARF patent on all human embryonic stem cells, regardless of how they are derived, is too broad. Link

Now I think this action is a very important step in the history of pushing the public acceptance of regenerative medicine forward. Pros of embryonic stem cell research in the U.S. have already collected enough money to do significant research due to the political decision manifested in Proposition 71, but this new type of proactive trial to legally speed up events is the next tool for reaching their aims. The case also illustrates well that fastening science and medicine is more important than personal priorities. Isolating new types of valuable cells demands usually an extremely useful engineering-like team work, but it is not about inventing brand new concepts, hypotheses and theories. The methodological part of experimental science is the backbone of it.

Another interesting momentum is the institutional one concerning governmental science support. According to Loring the first human embryonic stem cell line wasn’t created until 1998 in part because the National Institutes of Health did not fund research on human embryos before 2001, which made it “pretty close to impossible” for any U.S. academic lab to derive human embryonic stem cells. In addition, it was “not easy to find an in vitro fertilization clinic that wanted to go to the trouble of providing embryos for this research.”