Stem cells, human genes, and patents

Posted by Jesse Reynolds May 14, 2010
Biopolitical Times

Last week, a federal panel agreed with public interest challenges to key patents on human embryonic stem cells. Four years ago, Consumer Watchdog (then called the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights) and the Public Patent Foundation asked the US Patent and Trademark Office to review a trio of patents held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF, affiliated with the University of Wisconsin). The initial ruling was ambiguous, though somewhat more favorable to WARF. Now, though, an appeals sided more in support to the two groups' challenges, overturning one of the patents.

I am struck by the similarities of this with concurrent challenges to patents on human genes related to breast cancer. In both cases, public interest groups (and in both cases, including the Public Patent Foundation) challenged patents because, at least in part, they are inappropriately interfering with research. Many researchers sided with the groups' challenges, and the biotech industry was sympathetic with the patent holders. However, we have not heard the final word in either situation, as each will be appealed further.

It is too early to say if these rulings are indicative of a larger trend toward a narrower view of intellectual property in human biotechnology. But after thirty years of an expanding IP domain, launched by the Bayh-Dole Act and the Supreme Court's Chakrabarty ruling, such a shift would be welcome.

Previously in Biopolitical Times: