Monday, May 25, 2009

Stem Cell Patent Flap Gains Wide Media Exposure

Three of the top names in California stem cell research – not to mention the world – surfaced during the weekend in a piece in the Los Angeles Times about a matter that is at the heart of the field – money.

Michael Hiltzik, a columnist at California's largest newspaper, brought up the scientists in connection with a patent imbroglio in Orange County that reaches into Stanford, the Salk Institute and Caltech via the researchers, who are Irv Weismann, Fred Gage and David Anderson, respectively of the three institutions.

Generally, such disputes put the general public to sleep. But Hiltzik wrote today,
"...(T)he penetration of private investment concerns into what used to be largely academic pastures threatens to hobble, rather than hasten, the march of science. The harvest may be secrecy, delay and the directing of research only toward developments that promise quick financial returns."
The matter pits researcher Philip Schwartz of the Children's Hospital of Orange County against StemCells, Inc., of Palo Alto, Ca., which was founded by Weissman, Gage and Anderson. Schwartz has spent six years providing academic researchers with neural stem cells cultured by a method he helped to invent at Salk, Hiltzik wrote.

But StemCells Inc. has effectively put a halt to Schwartz' distribution. That occurred after the firm wrote a letter to Children's Hospital warning that Schwartz' efforts infringed on its patents in the neural stem cell field and that it wanted to discuss a licensing arrangement.

This all started two years ago, but nothing has been resolved, although little apparent conflict exists between the “core clienteles” of StemCells Inc. and Children's Hospital. Hiltzik said,
"...(I)n the biotech world, where millions or even billions of dollars in profits beckon to those who can assert ownership of important discoveries, good intentions and purely scientific goals don't matter like they used to. Access by basic researchers to the essential building blocks of biomedical advances has been shrinking for years, thanks to a land rush by entrepreneurs wielding patent portfolios."
Hiltzik reported that the conflict between research and business has gone beyond biotech. He noted that Andy Grove, the fabled former CEO of Intel, this month warned of the evil effects of over zealous protection of IP.

The problem has become more serious, however, in stem cell science, according to Gregory Graff, a patent expert at Colorado State University.

According to Hiltzik,
"Graff says this phenomenon is becoming especially pronounced in stem cell science, which is especially dependent on collaboration but is already being cordoned off by commercial entities claiming property rights to essential research. The best solution, he says, may be for academic institutions -- where 45 percent of all stem cell research is performed -- to create collaborative patent pools so they can more freely disseminate information and technology without giving up all their potentially lucrative patent rights."
The issues raised by the Children's Hospital-StemCells, Inc., flap were first publicly reported April 15 by John M. Simpson, stem cell project director of Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca. We carried a follow-up on April 16, noting that Harvard business professor and biotech industry consultant Gary Pisano warned in 2006 about the harmful impact of the "monetization of IP" on the biotech business. Our item triggered a robust exchange of comments that are attached at the end of the piece.

We asked Weissman, Gage and Anderson for comment a couple of times over the last several weeks. They did not respond to our queries. Nor they did respond to Hiltzik. Sphere: Related Content

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