MADISON, WI — The University of Wisconsin’s research arm challenged the federal government’s rejection of its patents covering human embryonic stem cell research on Thursday, defending researcher Jamie Thomson‘s work as a “landmark invention.”
The California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and others are challenging patents that cover discoveries by Thomson, who was the first to grow and isolate human embryonic stem cells in 1998.
In a preliminary decision released in April, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said it was preparing to throw out the patents because Thomson’s discoveries were obvious given previous research by other scientists.
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which patented Thomson’s work and has collected fees from researchers ever since, formally challenged the decision as expected on Thursday. The group argued regulators relied on irrelevant previous patents and publications.
The patents on Thomson’s work are broadly written to cover the cells and research techniques used by many American scientists, and critics say the license fees charged by WARF have stifled the young field.
But in its lengthy filing on Thursday, WARF said the patents are deserved because Thomson was the first to successfully isolate embryonic stem cells after others repeatedly tried and failed for several years.
The group was backed by a prominent stem cell researcher in Singapore, who emphasized the differences in isolating human embryonic stem cells compared to the isolation of mouse stem cells. Earlier discoveries involving mouse cells figured prominently in the patent office’s decision.
WARF also pointed to a long list of accolades Thomson received for his work from the scientific community.
“Clearly, at the time of the discoveries leading scientists and scholars from around the world saw Thomson as the first scientist to isolate and proliferate human embryonic stem cells,” said WARF‘s managing director, Carl Gulbrandsen, who expressed confidence the patents would ultimately be upheld.
John Simpson, stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, dismissed the filing as “a rehash of what was already before the PTO.” His group and the Public Patent Foundation have one month to respond to WARF‘s arguments.
Revoking the patents could ease concerns over commercial control of the field but take away a potential financial windfall for the university. The several million dollars it has collected in license fees so far could be dwarfed if the patents stand and stem cell products hit the market.
In response to criticism that its patent policies were stifling research and driving some investment overseas, WARF decided in January to waive some fees for academic researchers conducting industry-sponsored research.
The school still requires companies to purchase licenses for research in their own labs and pay royalties on the sale of any products they might bring to market. If the patents are revoked, companies would no longer have to pay the school.
Scientists believe embryonic stem cells may help them unlock cures to diseases because they can grow into any part of the body. But the field is still developing and faces opposition from social conservatives because days-old human embryos are destroyed to extract cells.