Some Stem Cell Patent Obstacles Overcome

WASHINGTON, D.C.--A new agreement will overcome some obstacles to federal funding of stem cell research, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced 5 September at a Senate hearing. The agreement, with an organization that holds patents on human embryonic stem cells, will enable federally funded researchers to purchase cell lines without submitting to major restrictions on their research.

Embryonic stem cells were first successfully isolated by University of Wisconsin, Madison, researcher James Thomson in 1998. An institute called WiCell was set up to propagate the fruits of stem cell research done at the university, and the patents for WiCell's stem cell lines are held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). The foundation claims that its patents cover all human embryonic stem cell lines in the United States, says Carl Gulbrandsen, president of WiCell--a claim not yet tested in court.

Under the agreement between WiCell and the United States Public Health Service--which oversees the National Institutes of Health--scientists will have a free hand with cells purchased from WiCell so long as they stick to basic research. In what Gulbrandsen said was a change from its usual practices, WiCell is forgoing "reach-through" rights; that is, it won't claim rights to any new discoveries, such as a useful new molecule, that researchers make using its cell lines. Gulbrandsen told reporters that WiCell has enough cells to supply all comers. "We could supply hundreds," he said. So far they have had more than 100 inquiries, he added.

"Removing reach-through should make it easier for institutions to accept the agreement," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology stem cell researcher George Daley. The agreement forbids therapeutic or diagnostic use of the cell lines, however, so researchers would have to renegotiate the agreement with WiCell if they want to apply the research to commercial products.