WARF Stem Cell Patents Challenged in Federal Court

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Public interest groups that earlier unsuccessfully sought to remove embryonic stem cell patents held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation have asked a federal appeals court to reopen the case challenging one of the patents, which they say should be invalidated because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Calif., and the Public Patent Foundation of New York City argued in a brief filed Tuesday that WARF’s “‘913 patent” “has put a severe burden on taxpayer-funded research in the state of California” and is invalid.

In 2006, the groups challenged three patents on pioneering UW-Madison researcher James Thomson’s research. They said he followed the recipe of other scientists when he was the first to grow human embryonic stem cells in 1998. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reviewed and upheld the patents, with minor changes, that are held by WARF, the university’s tech-transfer organization.

In their appeal of the ruling in federal court, the groups cited a June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics Inc., in which the court ruled genes can’t be patented.

“Such broad claims to products of nature are not patent eligible … and thus should be declared invalid,” they argued

in the brief.

Madison is well-known for stem cell achievements: Thomson was the first scientist, in 1998, to grow human embryonic stem cells in a lab. In 2007, Thomson and colleague Junying Yu of UW-Madison discovered human iPS cells, the stem cells made by reprogramming adult cells, at the same time as Shinya Yamanaka of Japan. The cells, made from skin or blood, provide an alternative source of stem cells without destroying embryos.

Both types of stem cells, believed capable of becoming each of the more than 200 cell types in the body, could someday offer cell therapies for patients with Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other conditions. For now, the cells are mostly being used to better understand diseases and to screen and test drugs.

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