US patents revoked — boost for S’pore pioneer;

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Key stem-cell patents of varsity cancelled — recognition for work by Prof. Bongso, others

The Straits Times (Singapore)

A battle may still loom, but for now the United States Patent and Trademark Office has revoked key patents on embryonic stem cells — a big money-spinner — held by an American university.

In doing so, the patent office recognized that pioneering research had been done by others, including Singapore’s own stem-cell and fertility expert Professor Ariff Bongso, without resorting to patents for their work.

The three patents revoked were fundamental ones — getting and growing embryonic stem cells — and based on the work of University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher James A. Thomson.

Embryonic stem cells are the unprogrammed cells that can turn into any cell or tissue type the body needs. Around the world, researchers are working to use them to treat a host of ailments, ranging from diabetes to Alzheimer’s.

Patents on these cells would add heavily to the researchers’ costs.

While researchers were entitled to free licenses and had to pay only for the cells, some companies had reportedly been charged six-figure fees for licenses.

What led to the recent decision on the patents held by the University of Wisconsin-Madison were challenges mounted last year by two US watchdogs — the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and the Public Patent Foundation.

Prof. Bongso himself had pioneered techniques to derive stem cells from embryos as early as 1993, five years before Wisconsin-Madison got its first patent.

But he chose to present his work at an Australian international congress and then published it in a scientific journal — to share it with the research community rather than opting to patent it.

The latest move, while still preliminary, is good news, say researchers.

Singapore’s ES Cell International, which is doing research into using such cells to treat ailments such as diabetes and heart failure, was one of those which entered into licensing agreements with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (Warf), the university’s patent-licensing arm.

ES Cell chief executive officer Alan Colman told The Straits Times that if the patents were indeed revoked, it would help his company to save money.

‘Generally, I think Warf would have been well advised to have historically been much less mercenary about these patents,’ he said.

Asked for his comment, Prof Bongso, who is with the National University of Singapore, said it had been good news for his co-worker Dr Fong Chui-Yee and himself.

‘We feel elated that our work has been recognised because we were toiling in the early 1990s trying to make a difference to mankind by searching for cures for the sick,’ he said.

Stem-cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights John M. Simpson stressed the need for free exchange of ideas and information.

Writing in an online article in the Wisconsin Technology Network, he said that overly broad patents ‘must not be issued that allow bureaucratic institutions, whose leaders’ vision is blurred by dollar signs, to further their own narrow agenda rather than the good of science’.

He drew a parallel to Jonas E. Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine.

‘Salk stood on the shoulders of scientists before him, just as Thomson stood on the shoulders of others, such as Ariff Bongso, a Singaporean stem-cell scientist,’ he wrote.

‘Others are learning from Thomson, a deservedly honoured leader in the stem-cell research community, and will stand on his shoulders.’

But the fight is far from over.

Warf has said that it would ‘vigorously defend its patent claims’.

It pointed out that the patent re-examination process allowed for multiple layers of review and even if its claims were rejected here, it could take the matter to the appeals board, and later the courts.

WARF managing director Carl E. Gulbrandsen said in a statement: ‘While the review is under way, all of WARF‘s patents remain in place and are legally viable.’
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Singapore has emerged as a key player in stem-cell research, thanks in no small part to the efforts of a pioneer in the field, Professor Ariff Bongso. Here are some of the breakthroughs made by the fertility expert and his team:

1993: The team is the first in the world to isolate embryonic stem cells, the unprogrammed cells capable of becoming any tissue the body needs. The researchers worked out a way to extract the 30 or so inner cells from the embryos and managed to grow them for two generations. This opened the door to creating the stem-cell lines now used commonly in research.

2004: Created animal-free storage systems for stem cells, which allow such cells to be frozen over the long term without the danger of being contaminated.

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