Gene Patent Case Fuels U.S. Court Test of Stem Cell Right

As scientists get closer to using embryonic stem cells in new treatments for blindness, spinal cord injuries and heart disease, a U.S. legal debate could determine who profits from that research.

Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group, wants an appeals court to invalidate a University of Wisconsin-Madisons patentfor stem cells derived from human embryos, saying its too similar to earlier research. The Santa Monica, California, group also says the U.S. Supreme Courts June ruling limiting ownership rights of human genes should apply to stem cells, a potentially lucrative field for medical breakthroughs.

The challenge to Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the universitys licensing arm, is about whether patents help or hinder U.S. stem-cell research, which has been stymied by political debate. The consumer group says it drives up the cost of research by requiring companies and some academics to pay a licensing fee to the university.

What were asking the government to do is say WARF has no right to the patent, said Dan Ravicher, executive director Public Patent Foundation in New York, which is handling the challenge for Consumer Watchdog. Its like the government sent a check to WARF they didnt deserve.

Consumer Watchdog lost a challenge at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in January 2013. It wants the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington to review that decision and consider new arguments based on the Supreme Courts finding that genes -- like stem cells -- are a natural material that cant be patented. Beyond the science question, the case has become a flashpoint over how far members of the public can go to invalidate patents on policy grounds.

While the patent expires in April 2015 and the university has other stem-cell-related patents, Consumer Watchdog is continuing a six-year battle to invalidate it because stem-cell research is starting to get some traction into therapeutic uses, Ravicher said.

The promise of embryonic stem cells is to create or repair tissues and organs using material taken from eggs fertilized in the laboratory. The cells created can be replicated indefinitely, and with the right biological cues, may aid in treating damaged heart tissue and spinal cords, or generate therapies for diabetes and cancer. Companies like StemCells Inc. (STEM) and Advanced Cell Technology Inc. are testing therapies to treat macular degeneration, a cause of blindness.

The next paradigm shift in medicine will be advances in cell therapy -- its under way, said Jason Kolbert, senior biotechnology analyst with Maxim Group LLC in New York. He said pharmaceutical makers such as Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. (TEVA) of Petach Tikva, Israel, and Pfizer (PFE) Inc. of New York are working with stem-cell researchers on new therapies.

Stem-cell science in the U.S. was curbed in 2001 when then-President George W. Bush issued an executive order limiting research to existing cell lines amid controversy over human embryo destruction, even though they were never in a womans uterus. President Barack Obama reversed that order in 2009.

Some scientists have avoided the public debate by using adult cells to find the unlimited potential they have in embryonic cells.

More here:
Gene Patent Case Fuels U.S. Court Test of Stem Cell Right

Related Post