SAN DIEGO, CA — Novocell, a small, privately held San Diego company, may have found new ways to make money from its technique for coaxing human embryonic stem cells into insulin-producing pancreatic cells.
That’s good news in a field that has had trouble attracting investor funding. Many venture capital firms have been skittish because of politics and the nascency of the embryonic stem cell science.
The biotechnology company announced Tuesday that it received a patent that essentially gives it control over all endoderm cells made from human embryonic stem cells.
Endoderm cells are precursor cells that can eventually develop into cells of the pancreas, lungs, intestine, liver, thymus, bladder and thyroid.
Novocell is developing a diabetes therapy by using embryonic stem cells to create insulin-producing islet cells. The company’s goal is for the islet cells to treat diabetics, to take up the slack for islet cells in the pancreas that have been destroyed by the disease.
Last year, Novocell was the first company to document that it could make human embryonic stem cells evolve first into endoderm cells and then into insulin producing cells.
It then became the first to apply for a patent on the gateway cells.
Under the patent, any company using human embryonic stem cells to make any of those types of cells by first making endoderm cells must have a license from Novocell. Novocell has a right to charge a licensing fee.
The company, however, has other plans for the patent rights. It hopes to use the patent to attract a collaboration with a pharmaceutical company that may be interested in pursuing therapeutics that Novocell does not have the staff, expertise or money to pursue, said Liz Bui, Novocell’s director of intellectual property and corporate development.
Meanwhile, Novocell hopes its expertise with human embryonic stem cells may entice pharmaceutical companies that had previously shied away from stem cells to start research programs in the field, Bui said.
Novocell’s patent is notable because it is so broad. Many patents are for a method, or scientific process for making something, sort of like a high-tech recipe.
The patent Novocell received is for composition, meaning it is not for how to make the endoderm cells, but the actual cells – the product of the recipe.
Such patents can be controversial.
For example, University of Wisconsin researcher James Thomson received a composition patent for human embryonic stem cells. It gives the university ownership of all human embryonic stem cells that are created in the United States, whether they are for research or product development.
History has shown that Thomson was not the first person to extract stem cells from a human embryo and grow them into more stem cells. He was, however, the first person to create a line of living embryonic stem cells from the process and apply for a patent on the cells.
Scientists have complained that the embryonic stem cell patent hinders research. And the patent has been challenged by the California nonprofit Consumer Watchdog and several scientists for being too broad. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has upheld the validity of that patent.
Novocell sees the patent as symbolic of its success.
“This composition patent is a milestone achievement for Novocell and is the culmination of extensive research that opened the door to the endoderm lineage,” said Fred Middleton, Novocell’s acting chief executive.
Terri Somers: (619) 293-2028