SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Federal regulators said they are preparing to toss out three key patents related to human embryonic stem cells, an action that could ease concerns over commercial control of the nascent work.
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, an arm of the University of Wisconsin that controls the school’s patents, owns the patents and has 60 days to respond and seek to change the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office‘s ruling, issued Friday. The ruling was made public Monday by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and the Public Patent Foundation, which challenged the validity of the patents.
“This is a great day for scientific research,” said John Simpson of the Santa Monica-based taxpayers foundation.
University of Wisconsin researcher Jamie Thomson was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells in 1997 and the university patented his discovery and has been collecting fees from researchers since.
The university said it would fight the USPTO‘s preliminary decision.
“It is inconceivable to us that Dr. Thomson’s discovery, which Science Magazine heralded as one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history, would be found to not be worthy of a patent,” said Carl Gulbrandsen, director of Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. “This discovery captured the imagination of people all over the globe from every discipline.”
In January, the university waived some of those fees after widespread complaints that its patent policies were stifling research and driving some stem cell investment overseas.
At the time, the university also said it would not require the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to obtain a commercial license or negotiate royalties on products brought to market through its grants. The California group is overseeing $3 billion in stem cell research funds.
Still, the school required companies to purchase licenses for research in their own labs and pay royalties if they bring products to the market. No human embryonic stem cell product is close to market, but if the patents are ultimately rejected, stem cell companies may no longer have to pay the school.
Scientists believe embryonic stem cells may help them unlock cures to diseases because they can grow into any part of the body. But the field is still developing and faces opposition from social conservatives because days-old human embryos are destroyed to extract cells.