Stem cell patents rejected

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North County Times (Escondido, California)

Three major patents covering human embryonic stem cells were rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in a decision announced Monday. Biomedical researchers praised the decision, but the patents holder, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, said that it would fight to overturn the ruling.

The patents cover methods of cultivating embryonic stem cells from humans and other primates. The “ancestral” cells that form nearly all the body’s organs, embryonic stem cells are thought to be a potential source of treatments for many diseases. Locking up such fundamental technology damages the United States’ competitiveness in the fast-growing field, say scientists such as stem cell researcher Jeanne Loring of the Burnham Institute. Some companies have shifted research overseas, where the patents do not apply.

The foundation has said that it is willing to work with companies and research institutes to establish fair licensing agreements, and recently loosened up its terms.

San Diego’s large biomedical community has invested much effort in stem cell research. The Burnham Institute has teamed up with UC San Diego, the Salk Institute and The Scripps Research Institute in a consortium to turn San Diego into a hub of stem cell biology. Together, the institutes and their researchers hope to attract grants from California’s $3 billion stem cell research program.

In July, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights Foundation and the Public Patent Foundation filed challenges to the three patents. Loring filed statements in support of the challenge. The patent office agreed to re-examine their validity. It decided that all three patents were wrongly issued because their technology was obvious to those familiar with previous research.

The patent office’s decision was “a great day for scientific research,” said the foundation’s stem cell project director, John M. Simpson, in a statement.

In its own statement, WARF said that the patents are legitimate and expects them to be upheld on appeal. In the meantime, the statement said, the patents “remain in place and are legally viable.”

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