MADISON, WI — After scientist Jamie Thomson isolated human embryonic stem cells in 1998, colleagues said he had opened the door to novel medical treatments that would transform science.
A leading journal called it one of the most important scientific achievements ever. The University of Wisconsin-Madison biologist appeared on Time Magazine’s cover under the headline: “The man who brought you stem cells.”
But nearly a decade after his discovery, some scientists are turning on Thomson amid a battle over the patent rights to his work. Dismissing his research as obvious, they claim any scientist with Thomson’s funding and access to human embryos could have done the same thing.
Their claims have escalated a fight that could tarnish Thomson’s reputation, deprive his school of millions of dollars in future revenue and loosen restrictions under which U.S. stem cell researchers have to work. With the stakes high, the fight is turning increasingly bitter and personal, with each side accusing the other of greed.
Thomson, who still conducts stem cell research in Madison and has started two companies from his work, declined an interview request. But his supporters have been particularly angered by the assault on the importance of his discovery.
“If it was so obvious, how come they didn’t do it? Where were they then?” asked Nicholas Seay, a patent lawyer who helps run Thomson’s companies.
“The fight is certainly about money, but it’s also sort of a stature thing,” he continued. “It wouldn’t be good for the university or Jamie if the patents were revoked. He did invent all this stuff.”
Scientists have claimed the patents delayed their work and sent investment overseas to escape license fees. Their concerns prompted the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights to ask for a federal review of the patents last year.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said in March it was preparing to throw out the patents because research from other scientists paved the way for Thomson’s breakthrough.
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the arm of the university that holds three patents for Thomson’s discoveries, is trying to convince regulators to allow them to stand. The fight could take several years to resolve.
Nobody disputes that Thomson won a worldwide race in 1998 when he became the first to isolate and cultivate stem cells from days-old human embryos donated by fertility clinics. The fight is over whether that breakthrough was novel enough to meet the standard for a patent.
Scientists hope to use stem cells, which eventually grow into all types of human tissue, to find cures to diseases and perhaps even replace injured body parts. Some conservatives oppose the research because embryos are destroyed.
Four scientists have filed affidavits in recent weeks saying research on mice and other animals made Thomson’s work a no-brainer.
“Had other stem cell researchers been given the same human embryos and funding, they would have done the same thing, because the technical knowledge needed to derive and culture human embryonic stem cells was obvious,” wrote Chad Cowan, a Harvard researcher.
Thomson’s work was “common sense” and “entirely predictable to us,” added Alan Trounson, a prominent stem cell researcher in Australia.
Those comments haven’t sat well in Madison, where Thomson is a rock star in the scientific community.
WARF responded with an attack on those scientists’ credibility, telling the patent office that two had applied for patents for human embryonic stem cell research after Thomson. How can they now claim such work is obvious? WARF asked.
“I think each of these people should be embarrassed,” said Carl Gulbrandsen, WARF‘s managing director. “They should really be saying that he has opened the door for us to really understand who we are as human beings and how to take care of some diseases that right now can’t be treated. What he has done is a gift to us all.”
John Simpson, stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said it didn’t matter that the scientists backing his group’s challenge had applied for patents themselves. Thomson’s work was commendable but not worthy of a patent, he said.
“A bunch of folks at WARF have dollar signs in their eyes,” Simpson said.
WARF could see a financial windfall if any stem cell treatments hit the market before the patents expire in 2015 because companies would have to pay royalties. That money, in turn, would be used to increase WARF‘s annual payment to support research at UW-Madison.
In response to criticism, WARF announced in January it would no longer require companies that sponsor research at universities to pay for licenses costing up to $400,000. But companies still need licenses for research in their own labs and must pay royalties if they develop products from that work.
“Hopefully, we cannot only get some commercial products that make people’s lives better, but we’ll continue to help support additional research at UW-Madison,” Gulbrandsen said.