MADISON, WI — The Wisconsin foundation that holds patents covering U.S. embryonic stem cell research announced it will waive some of its fees to encourage more industry-sponsored research in the young field.
The changes come in response to criticism from scientists who said the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation‘s fees and licensing system was impeding research and driving some investment overseas.
Scientists around the country hailed the policy changes, which will let researchers share their cells for free and allow companies to sponsor research at universities without having to obtain licenses that cost up to $400,000.
“The notion of reducing fees and sharing cell lines and enabling companies to sponsor research at academic institutions is a good thing and should help push the research forward,” said Brock Reeve, executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
WARF controls three patents covering research by University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist James Thomson, who was the first to grow and isolate human embryonic stem cells in 1998. The patents are broadly written to cover the cells and research techniques used by many American scientists.
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.
WARF said it will no longer require companies that fund the research at universities and nonprofit institutions to obtain licenses, which cost $75,000 to $400,000 depending on companies’ size. Companies will still have to purchase licenses for research in their own labs and pay royalties to WARF if they bring products to the market.
WARF, the patenting arm of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also said it would allow researchers to transfer its stem cells among themselves for free. Costly fees had discouraged sharing and become a major irritant to scientists wishing to collaborate with others.
In what it called a policy clarification, WARF said it would not require the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to obtain a commercial license or negotiate royalties on products brought to market through its grants. The California group is overseeing a $3 billion stem cell research initiative in that state.
Comments last year by a WARF official fueled speculation the group would treat the California institute as a commercial licensee. WARF spokesman Andy Cohn said that was never the foundation’s intention. But private companies that receive funding from the institute will be required to get licenses to do research and pay royalties on products they develop.
The changes come months after the California-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights asked the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to revoke WARF‘s patents, claiming they are invalid because other research paved the way for the breakthrough in Wisconsin. A review by the federal agency, which could last several months or years, is under way.
John Simpson, an official with the consumer group, said public attention as a result of the challenge pressured WARF to make the changes.
“It demonstrates that their previous policies clearly were detrimental to research,” he said. “We’re glad they’ve taken the step.”
Cohn said the changes have nothing to do with the challenge and were recommended by the group’s new licensing manager after a review. WARF has supplied more than 360 research groups with its cells and issued 15 commercial licenses, he said.
“We are listening to our customers and the people who have been using our cells and are being responsive,” Cohn said. “We believe this will increase the amount of private funding for this important science.”
Jeanne Loring, a stem cell researcher at Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, Calif., agreed the changes will mean more private investment in the science in the U.S. She said some companies had invested in places such as Singapore and England as a result of restrictions here.
“The enforcement of the patent has been one very large issue for scientists. WARF was facing an awful lot of pressure from scientists publicly and some of them were extremely angry,” she said. “I wish they would have done this a long time ago, but I’m not going to complain about them doing it now.”