National and international spotlights have illuminated UW-Madison in recent weeks after national policy identified the school as a major player in the future of stem cell research.
When President Bush made his announcement supporting federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, scientists around the world let out a relieved sigh.
No one got luckier than UW researcher James Thomson, who has quickly risen to fame — his face even appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Thomson’s 1998 discovery of the human embryonic stem cell is now the center of worldwide attention.
Bush announced he would support federal funding of stem-cell research, but would only finance research on stem-cell lines established before 9:00 p.m. EDT Aug. 9, the date of his speech.
“If they’re going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn’t they be used for a greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives?” Bush asked.
Although the National Institute of Health reported 64 lines fit Bush’s criteria, the quality of these lines is in question. According to the NIH, Goteborg University in Sweden has 19 lines of which only three may be viable, according to neurobiologist Peter Erickson, a member of the six-person team cultivating those lines.
What this means for UW was not — and still is not — fully understood. But as inventors and owners of the patent for the human embryonic stem cell, owners of five of the reported 64 cell lines in existence and with other scientists unable to create new cell lines, UW is now a major player in the future of this new science.
On Aug. 13, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the owners and distributors of the stem-cell patent, filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Geron Corporation of Menlo Park, Calif., to gain further control over and research access to the stem cells.
The lawsuit seeks to block Geron, who gained the license to six of the 220 different cell types in the body, from adding additional cell types to its license agreement with WARF.
“It is important that WARF continue to license additional stem-cell types to a wide variety of researchers,” Carl Gulbrandsen, WARF’s managing director, said in a press release. “Through this action, we hope to enable more academic researchers and private companies to join the search for new therapies and cures for some of the world’s most debilitating diseases.”
According to UW Communications, over 100 academic researchers and companies have expressed interest in licenses in the past two years.
“If this technology is successful and there are products made from it, the university stands to receive small profits and royalties,” WARF spokesman Andrew Cohn said. “But that is years away.”
WARF representatives recently met with the National Institute of Health, a subsidiary of the Health and Human Services department headed by former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. These meetings may determine how much of a stake UW can claim in stem-cell research.
“They’re the ones that are going to provide the federal money,” Cohn said. “We think the University of Wisconsin is positioned well and qualifies to get that money. We hope the NIH recognizes that.”
Legitimately, WARF could claim all of the stem cells if they fall under its patent, which would mean millions of dollars in research money and investments could flow into Wisconsin in years to come.
Gulbrandsen told the Wisconsin State Journal that WARF did not want to block research, but wanted to be sure the lines funded by the NIH are licensed by WARF.
He also said failure to enforce the patent might lead to claims that WARF waived its rights to the cells.
Gulbrandsen said the WARF patent applies to any cell that is derived from a human embryo and continues to thrive and multiply without specializing.