Fight Over Stem Cell Rights

In a preview of the tangled legal claims on rights to embryonic stem (ES) cells, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, filed suit on 13 August against Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, California. The university wants a judge to declare that the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the nonprofit corporation that holds the patent on derivation of primate ES cells, is not obligated to give Geron additional commercial rights to the cell lines.

The hope for ES cells is that they might be used to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes or Parkinson's disease. The cells have stirred up a heated debate, however, because they are derived from week-old human embryos. On 9 August, President George W. Bush announced that the National Institutes of Health would be allowed to fund work with ES cell lines derived before his announcement (ScienceNOW, 10 August). However, because most of the existing cell lines were derived with private funding, many scientists worry that commercial interests will restrict research.

Geron funded efforts by Wisconsin researcher James Thomson to derive the first human ES cell lines. Thomson succeeded, and in return for its investment, Geron has exclusive commercial rights to six types of cells derived from the undifferentiated ES cells: liver cells, muscle cells, neural cells, pancreatic islet cells, blood-forming cells, and bone cells. The original agreement included an option to negotiate for rights to other kinds of cells, but "after good-faith negotiations we've decided not to provide additional cell types," says WARF spokesperson Andy Cohn. WARF managing director Carl Gulbrandsen said in a statement that he feared giving Geron exclusive rights to additional cell types would limit research by academic scientists and other private companies.

But Geron argues that WARF is obligated to add additional cell types to the license agreement. The university has now asked the federal district court in Madison to decide the matter. "In order to ensure broad research access to the lines, this provision in the contract needs to be decided quickly by the court," Cohn says. Geron declined to comment, but said in a statement that it's prepared to meet with WARF representatives to resolve the dispute.

Related sites

Geron Corp. (includes links to WARF stem cell patents)
The University of Wisconsin's stem cell page
WiCell, an organization set up by WARF to distribute stem cells