Patents for stem cells get new look;

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Agency’s assessment could affect research OK’d by state voters

The Sacramento Bee (California)

Two nonprofit groups announced Tuesday that, in response to their complaint, the U.S. Patent Office has agreed to re-examine the validity of three key patents in the field of embryonic stem cell science.

The patents, held by a foundation affiliated with the University of Wisconsin, cover both the method used to isolate embryonic stem cell lines as well as the cells themselves.

In a break with academic tradition that has stirred controversy, the foundation has required university researchers to negotiate licenses to do virtually any sort of embryonic stem cell research. In addition, it generally negotiates “reach-through” royalty rights, giving it the right to claim a share of the proceeds from cures developed through the research.

As a result, the Patent Office’s decision could have financial implications for California taxpayers, who will be funding $3 billion in embryonic stem cell research in the next decade — if voter-approved Proposition 71 survives its ongoing legal challenges.

About 70 percent of patents that are accepted for re-examination by the Patent Office are ultimately altered or thrown out, according to agency figures. It usually takes between two and 10 years for the office to issue a final decision, according to Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation.

Embryonic stem cells 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 ailments, from spinal cord injuries to diabetes.

The nonprofit groups — the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, of Santa Monica, and the New York-based Public Patent Foundation — maintain that the patents should not have been issued in the first place. They asserted, in a complaint that was filed in July, that UW researcher James Thomson simply modified techniques used earlier to isolate embryonic stem cells in other mammal species.
The Bee’s Jim Downing can be reached at (916) 321-1065 or [email protected]

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