Saturday, May 27, 2006

WARF: Onerous and Outrageous

The friendly folks at WARF were thrashed thoroughly at last month's meeting of the California stem cell agency group looking into who gets the money from stem cell inventions.

John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights of Santa Monica, Ca., led off the April 27 session of CIRM's Intellectual Property Tax Force with a statement of some vigor. "Really outrageous" is how he described the WARF stem cell patents.

We have presented Simpson's position before so we will offer up the thoughts of others at the April 27 meeting, but first a comment from Ed Penhoet, chair of the IP Task Force. His statement came late in the meeting after he listened to much of what you will read below.

Penhoet said,
"There is a thread in these conversations: Patents are extremely important...except the ones they don't like.... You can't have it both ways. So hopefully the field as a whole can reach some sensible accommodation to WARF for the pioneering work that they did do, but at the same time not stop the entire field from going forward. It's a hard problem actually."
Penhoet also said that WARF has been invited to make a presentation before the IP Task Force.

Penhoet's comments, however, do little to minimize the deep seated antipathy to WARF's position as reflected in the comments below. One might imagine that WARF might be concerned that potential customers are so distressed.

Joydeep Goswami, vice president, stem cells and regenerative medicine, Invitrogen Corp., Carlsbad, Ca., was asked whether the WARF patents are "a significant obstacle to private investment."

His reply:
"I think they are....I know a lot of you know about the WARF policy for not-for-profit research tends to be somewhat, well, somewhat generous, although many scientists that we have spoken to are quite taken aback at some of the restrictions that are put on academic institutions in terms of collaborating with companies such as us.

"For private institutions, I think it is a big disincentive because what WARF does is it looks at the size of the institution or the company that wants to license this product and wants to charge an upfront payment, which is very steep in any licensing terms, and then, of course, royalties obligations which are twofold. one, a direct royalty obligation which depends on products directly produced using stem cells, human embryonic or primate embryonic stem cells, but they also have a reach-through royalty clause where they say anything you've invented remotely by using human embryonic stem cells will now have a royalty obligation back to WARF. So, for instance, even if you had a treatment that was somehow brought to the market that has touched an embryonic stem cell in the United States, you will have to pay a royalty back to WARF. I think this is particularly onerous....

"Let's say we make a discovery of a tool using at some point a human embryonic stem cell. They want a royalty back on that particular product. and not only do they want a royalty back on sales of that product to the embryonic stem cell market, but any market that we touch, they want a royalty back on that particular tool. So it is quite onerous."
Francisco Prieto, a member of the task force, then asked, "Even markets outside the United States?"

"Yes. In general they would. See, the other part is...if you look at companies in the United States versus outside...which is actually even more interesting. Let's say there's a company in India....For anything they do with respect to human embryonic stem cell research, they owe no royalties to WARF. They do not have an obligation to WARF in any manner, way, shape, or form, and they can develop exactly the same therapies companies in the United States are trying to develop without any kind of restrictions or obligation to WARF. So from that point of view, setting up a company to do stem cell therapy in the United states, I think, is a major disincentive, and people are not realizing this business issue....The issue is not whether the patent is legitimate or not, but there are serious business implications of the patent in making cures available to the public here."
Later, Allan Robins, vice presidennt and chief technology officer for Novocell Corp. of Irvine, Ca., said,
"I thought Francisco (Prieto) brought up a very good point. and, Joydeep, I just wanted to add a little bit to your answer.....If a company in the field or the United Kingdom or Singapore develops a product or human embryonic stem cells and that product is different from the human embryonic stem cell, that product can be imported into the U.S.A. and sold here, and that would not infringe the (WARF patent) line. and so you really are putting companies that operate in the U.S. at a disadvantage."
"That's a great point."
"That was sort of what I was starting to glean from this that as they currently operate, that these patents are a disincentive to the research in the United States."
"It is enormous. And the patents only, as Allan rightly points out, are to the composition of matter of the primate embryonic stem cell and the method of derivation. So absolutely."
Later Goswami said:
"The (WARF) licensing model huge upfront payments for a field that is, you know, pardon the pun, but embryonic. Just from a business point of view, it makes very little sense. and that's why maybe CIRM could help in enabling that particular patent because it will be used by almost everybody that is engaged in this form of research in the state of California."
We should note that the WARF issue was only part of the IP discussions. The full text of the session can be found by clicking here.

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