Stem cell patent fight gets personal: Challenge is ‘demeaning,’ foundation head declares

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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)

MADISON, WI — When University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist James Thomson staked his claim in 1998 as the first researcher to isolate and grow human embryonic stem cells, he set on fire an emerging area of science that many believe has potential to cure some of the world’s most difficult diseases.

Backed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Thompson also set in motion a patent skirmish that heated up last year when two groups asked the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to examine the validity of WARF‘s three key embryonic stem cell patents.

WARF Managing Director Carl Gulbrandsen discussed the patent fight during an interview last week in his 13th-floor office on the UW-Madison campus.

The groups challenging the WARF patents — the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica, Calif., and the Public Patent Foundation in New York — have argued that any good scientist with access to embryos and funding could have done what Thomson did.

“On one hand, they say he deserves all these accolades. On the other hand, they say anyone could have done it. That’s demeaning to him — that’s what really gets my dander up,” Gulbrandsen said. “These guys ought to be embarrassed — no, ashamed — about the way they’ve dealt with Thomson.”

WARF started patenting Thomson’s work in 1995, when it filed for rights to embryonic stem cells in all primates.

The federal government didn’t fund work with embryonic stem cells, but other funding and embryos were not out of reach of scientists at big research centers, Gulbrandsen said.

“If it was so easy, why would the Israelis have provided embryos to Jamie Thomson? Why not just do (the research) themselves?” Gulbrandsen asked.

WARF proceeded carefully with patenting and licensing Thomson’s work because of its significance and because of the moral and political issues it raises for people opposed to research using human embryos, he said.

“We live in a state that’s pro-life, so you wanted to make sure everything you did, you did right,” Gulbrandsen said.

WARF‘s opponents object to the patents, saying Thomson’s work was obvious. But the then-staff scientist didn’t even approach WARF about a patent until at least six months after he cultured human embryonic stem cells because he wanted to be certain he’d really done it, Gulbrandsen said.

The groups challenging the patents are concerned that WARF‘s licensing policies are squelching embryonic stem cell research, said John M. Simpson, stem cell project director at the Santa Monica consumer watchdog group.

Thomson’s work is important, but the patents “overreached,” he said.

“I don’t see where there’s any reason for embarrassment whatsoever in raising a question about the validity of a patent that was being asserted in a way that virtually everyone else in the field believed was detrimental to stem-cell research,” Simpson said. “I have no embarrassment we raised the issue. In fact,
I’m proud we did it.”

Simpson said WARF has become a “bureaucratic institution” whose agenda is neither pure scientific inquiry nor technology transfer. “In fact, they have become much more of an investment vehicle managing a very healthy investment portfolio rather than a pure technology transfer operation,” he said.

WARF has an endowment of about $1.7 billion and gives a portion of its investment proceeds — $65 million in fiscal 2006 — to the university each year.

The foundation continues to defend its stem cell patents as part of its obligation to licensees, Gulbrandsen said. WARF has issued 20 corporate embryonic stem cell licenses to 17 companies and 1,064 academic licenses to 686 researchers, he said.

Despite the patent challenge, Thomson understands he is on the cutting edge, Gulbrandsen said.

“He’s moving on now to the next big discovery: How do you explain these cells can be differentiated into any cell in the body.”

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