N. Zeke Campfield
As the stem-cell controversy keeps UW-Madison in the center of an enormous storm of patent laws, bioethics and millions of dollars, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has taken it upon themselves to manage that storm.
WARF, the research licensing arm of the school, is currently negotiating with the federal government in a struggle over patent ownership of the human embryonic stem cell’s ability to be manipulated into a variety of other cells.
The cells, discovered by UW researcher James Thomson, are a hot topic in the science field, and WARF, who patented the cells for Thomson, is rushing to protect UW’s interests.
But in the eyes of some researchers, WARF is hindering scientific progress.
Prominent Harvard University stem-cell scientist Douglas Melton spoke out against the contract agreements.
He told the New York Times the agreement, which gives WARF and Geron, a California licensing corporation, control over distribution of the cells, is not acceptable.
“Those conditions would mean that I am the ideal employee of Geron,” he said. “They don’t pay my salary, they don’t pay my benefits, but anything I discover they own.”
But according to WARF, UW scientists should thank WARF for the efforts it puts into securing and protecting their intellectual property.
WARF spokesman Andrew Cohn said researchers and companies across the nation are actually in a good position with WARF owning the patent.
“We believe it’s incredibly lucky that WARF has this patent because our goal is to share it,” Cohn said. “We are the only entity in the world who is moving this forward in a positive way.”
WARF, a non-profit foundation created in 1925, works to support UW research by patenting, marketing and licensing inventions and discoveries, building a substantial endowment principal and granting millions of dollars to UW for science research and providing legal support.
When a UW scientist makes a discovery or invention, WARF patents it and the scientist signs over all ownership and rights to the discovery. This means that whatever money is generated from selling, marketing and distributing the invention goes directly to WARF.
Although some scientists question this system, the agreement means WARF annually grants millions of dollars are granted to UW. This money goes to further research and to build labs and enhance science programs. Last year grants amounted to over $20 million.
UW scientists are not obligated to bring their inventions and research to WARF. The system, Cohn said, is designed to allow easier commercial use of research.
Right now, WARF is working with the National Institute of Health to secure distribution issues. The foundation claims that if the other reported stem-cell lines fall under its patent, it will claim the rights to the lines. But, Cohn said, WARF plans on working hard to allow easy access to academic researchers.
“We look at their research plan, and if it shows they’re a qualified researcher in this area, we’ll provide them with cells,” Cohn said.