Monday, November 03, 2014

WARF, Oatmeal and the Patenting of Life

The battle over the WARF patent on human embryonic stem cells caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times last week, which added some oatmeal and history to the tale.

Michael Hiltzik, a business columnist with the largest circulation newspaper in the Golden State, reported on the challenge by Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., Jeanne Loring, head of the stem cell program at Scripps, and the Public Patent Foundation of New York.

The trio on Friday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and affirm their right to sue(See here and here.).  Hiltzik said, 
“The group has challenged the patent on two grounds: first, that the work covered wasn't novel or original, and second, that the Supreme Court has ruled that a ‘product of nature’ can't be patented.   
“All this is happening, researchers say, because WARF (Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation) made exceptionally broad claims for its patent rights and exercised them very aggressively. This is, in fact, WARF's business; the nonprofit foundation was formed in the 1920s to exploit a patent issued to a University of Wisconsin professor on fortifying food with vitamin D, which it promptly licensed to Quaker Oats. By 1930, the deal was producing $1,000 a day. WARF also owns the rights to the drug Warfarin, which is named after the foundation.”
Hiltzik continued,
“The foundation demanded steep licensing fees of $5,000 a year from academic researchers and as much as $400,000 from commercial firms, plus royalties from product sales. 
“Eventually this backfired. When San Diego researcher Jeanne Loring was confronted by a demand for $75,000 a year from her start-up company—‘that's a lot, when your entire budget is $75,000,’ she told me--she looked closely at the patents only to conclude that they should never have been issued. 
“The key to (Wisconsin researcher Jamie) Thomson's success, she contends, was that he was able to get his hands on human embryos at a time when other researchers could not; the techniques he used had been applied to embryos of other species and shown to be effective. ‘Had I or any other stem cell scientist been given human embryos and sufficient funding, we could have made the same accomplishment, because the science...was obvious at the time,’ Loring says in a court declaration.  
“WARF disagrees. Thomson's success, it says in its own legal filings, ‘was anything but routine....He identified the critical steps needed to generate and culture these cells....No prior art reference taught these insights.’"

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