The Niche

WARF patent case gets uglier still

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has lashed out against a group of stem-cell scientists who argue that the Foundation’s patents on human embryonic stem cells are invalid.

News outlets report that, earlier this month, prominent scientists Chad Cowan, Doug Melton (both at Harvard), Monash University’s Alan Trounson, and the Burnham Institute’s Jeanne Loring formally stated that the WARF patents should not be upheld. The scientists back claims by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which earlier this year convinced the US patent office to review the validity of the patents. (This is nicely covered in the July 13 issue of Science pg 187)

On July 25, WARF issued a press release saying that a “duty of candor” required it to state that two of the scientists (Loring and Trounson) failed to declare that they have filed patents in human embryonic stem cells in their statements supporting the Taxpayer Foundation. Other news outlets quote WARF officials saying that Melton also has economic interests, and so the scientists cannot be objective.

Disclosing information is appropriate. But the main issue is whether existing techniques for deriving and culturing non-human embryonic stem cells at the time of the patents render University of Wisconsin’s James Thomson’s human techniques “obvious” and so unworthy of patent protection.

The Taxpayer Foundation’s John Simpson says the fact that prominent scientists have filed other patents is irrelevant. “What’s germane is the obviousness of the existing three patents,” he says.

When people have an economic interest in their idea being right, it does not logically follow that the idea is wrong. WARF has a huge economic interest in upholding the validity of the patents after all. Critics with conflicts of interest can still make valid points.


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