Scientists attack UW patents

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Wisconsin State Journal

Challengers to UW-Madison’s stem-cell patents have enlisted some high-profile scientists to argue that the federal government’s preliminary rejection of the patents should be upheld.

Doug Melton, a co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said in a declaration released Monday that UW-Madison scientist James Thomson achieved his stem-cell discoveries in 1998 because of his access to money and materials, not because of ground-breaking science.

“He deserves recognition because he undertook the arduous and timely task of getting fresh and high quality human embryos to use as starting material in his work and sufficient funding for such research, not because he did anything that was inventive,” Melton wrote.

Melton competes with Thomson and others for funding and prestige in the burgeoning stem-cell field. His statement is among documents newly filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by two groups that challenged three of UW-Madison’s stem-cell patents a year ago.

The patent office preliminarily rejected the patents in March. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, UW-Madison’s tech-transfer arm, responded in May, saying the patents should be upheld.

The challengers are the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, in Santa Monica, Calif., and the New York-based Public Patent Foundation. Now that they have responded to WARF‘s response, the patent office is expected to issue a final ruling within a few months.

Both sides could appeal the ruling to the patent office’s board, and then to federal court, in a process that could take years. At stake is millions of dollars in revenue for WARF — and scientists’ access to the blank-slate cells they hope to turn into therapies for diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions.

The patents — granted in 1998, 2001 and 2006, and in effect until 2015 — essentially cover all human embryonic stem-cell research in the country. They require scientists and companies to pay WARF to use the cells and develop products from them. Critics say the fees have driven researchers overseas.

The challengers filed the new documents with the patent office Friday and released them Monday. The documents include declarations opposing the patents from Melton and three other scientists, including another one from Harvard.

The main document repeats the challengers’ argument that Thomson’s breakthrough in growing the cells in humans was “obvious” because researchers had published recipes for growing the cells in mice, sheep and pigs.

But the challengers added a new twist. They said Thomson had “unique access” to an Israeli scientist who provided him with human embryos and enviable funding from the biotech firm Geron.

“Had other scientists in the field been given the same access to those limited resources, they, too, would have been able to make the same accomplishment Dr. Thomson did,” the challengers wrote.

Thomson did not respond to a request for comment Monday. In an e-mail interview last year, he said, “Some very good, simple ideas only seem obvious afterwards.”

Andy Cohn, WARF spokesman, called the new filing “a minor step in a long process.” He said WARF will ultimately prevail.

Cohn said Melton “is not objective on this issue” because he has his own “economic interests” in stem cells.

The other scientists who filed declarations supporting the challengers: Chad Cowan ,of Harvard; Jeanne Loring, of the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in San Diego; and Alan Trounson, of Monash University in Australia.

WARF‘s filing with the patent office in May included a declaration of support from one scientist: Colin Stewart, with the Institute of Medical Biology in Singapore.

The three patents at stake are the most visible in WARF‘s stem-cell portfolio, but Cohn said the organization has nine other stem-cell patents and 45 applications pending for stem-cell research at the
Contact the author DAVID WAHLBERG at: 608-252-6125.

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