License retreat on stem cells;

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Wisconsin patent holder says it won’t require pacts on research.

Sacramento Bee (California)

In a peacemaking move, a Wisconsin foundation that holds several key embryonic stem cell patents announced Monday it would let scientists conduct their research without having to negotiate a license.

The new policy aims to appease university researchers and consumer groups, who have charged that the Wisconsin group’s enforcement of its patents is impeding stem cell research and wasting taxpayer research dollars.

Following a 1998 discovery by a University of Wisconsin researcher, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has maintained patent claims on both the method used to isolate embryonic stem cell lines and the cells themselves.

As a result, any company or university wanting to do research on embryonic stem cells must negotiate a license with the foundation.

While such licenses are a standard part of the biotechnology business, they are unusual in academic and nonprofit research. Many consider the licensing requirement a violation of academic courtesy and a waste of time — and money — for researchers and administrators.

California taxpayers are set to be major suppliers of funding for stem cell research if the $3 billion authorized by Proposition 71, passed in 2004, survives ongoing legal challenges.

Under the new policies announced Monday, California’s stem cell institute and its grantees specifically will not be required to negotiate a license with the Wisconsin group. However, the foundation did not give up its right to claim a share of royalties from stem cell therapies developed using state funding that are eventually commercialized, spokesman Andy Cohn said.

John Simpson, spokesman for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, applauded Monday’s announcement but said that his group would continue to pursue a challenge to the patents filed in July with the U.S. Patent Office. Simpson’s group maintains the Wisconsin patents are overreaching and should be thrown out.

Embryonic stem cells are drawn from an embryo soon after fertilization and can mature into any kind of cell of the body. Because of that special characteristic, they are thought to hold a key to treating a wide variety of diseases, from Parkinson’s disease to diabetes.

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