After weeks of discussion, the National Institute of Health and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation came to an agreement Wednesday on the distribution and use of the human embryonic stem cell.
In a signed contract the WiCell Research Institute, Inc., a private subsidiary of WARF, which owns the patent to the stem cell, agreed to give NIH scientists access to the cells. This enables the NIH to begin the implementation of President Bush’s Aug. 9 promise of directing federal funding to stem-cell research.
“This agreement will accelerate a field of research with great potential to improve public health,” the NIH said in a press release.
WARF spokesman Andrew Cohn said WARF is excited to be able to follow its mission of advancing the potential of science.
“Our mission is to make this research move forward,” Cohn said.
The agreement allows WiCell to retain commercial rights to the human embryonic stem cell, meaning WiCell will continue to receive a fee to cover handling and distribution expenses in supplying these stem-cell lines to NIH and other interested parties.
WARF patented the stem cell in 1998 after a breakthrough discovery by UW scientist James Thomson.
While stem-cell researchers looking for federal funding will go through NIH for stem cells, privately funded researchers will still go through WiCell.
Additionally, WiCell will make the stem-cell lines available for use by non-profit organizations, assuming they follow guidelines and restrictions established by NIH.
The long list of guidelines includes prohibitions of mixing the cells with intact embryos, implanting the cells in a uterus or attempting to make whole embryos out of the cells.
Cohn said the 10 other groups he knew of with stem-cell access will be able to continue their research and distribution as long as they follow those same guidelines.
“If these entities follow the same terms with NIH as WARF follows then they get a free license to distribute the cells,” Cohn said. “If they don’t, they have to get a commercial license with us.”
Other terms of the agreement include a provision that will allow NIH to retain ownership to any new intellectual property that arises from its own research in the area.
“The agreement will help us make these cells readily available to qualified scientists in government and universities where the science can be openly advanced and the technology brought to fruition as quickly as possible,” said Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of WARF.
The university was pushed into the spotlight in August when President Bush said the federal government would fund only currently existing stem cell lines. Since WARF claims all these lines fall under its patent, the world waited for an agreement between the feds and WARF.
With this agreement federal funding is now accessible.
“It puts us in the forefront of stem-cell research,” Cohn said. “I think it is really exciting for professors and students to know they’re at a university with high-quality researchers who made an incredible breakthrough. Hopefully down the line this will lead to additional funds for the university from WARF.”
Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and the former governor of Wisconsin, who helped the two parties come to an agreement, was pleased.
“I believe it will open up a world of opportunity for scientists, not only at the NIH but elsewhere,”
Thompson said at a Congressional hearing Wednesday. “It demonstrates a cooperative atmosphere among academia, the private sector and government that will allow us to move ahead.”