THES reporters look at global developments in stem-cell research and legislation.
A key stem-cell patent may ultimately prove invalid in Europe, according to a leading scientist, writes Steve Farrar.
In evidence to the House of Lords inquiry, published last week, Richard Gardner, Royal Society research professor at Oxford University, questioned whether intellectual property rights held in the United States by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (Warf) and licensed to Geron Corporation, could withstand a legal challenge.
The patent covers the derivation of human embryonic stem cells and was based on the work of James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The breadth of the patent's claims have alarmed some scientists who fear commercial control of the supply of human es-cells might restrict scientific discourse.
However, Professor Gardner said the basic process of es-cell derivation had been pioneered in mice by Martin Evans, professor of mammalian genetics at Cardiff University, while he was at Cambridge. He felt this could prove significant in any legal challenge.
"We do not know whether that patent will hold in Europe, in other words whether they will have a monopoly on the production of human embryonic stem-cell lines," Professor Gardner said.
The Warf patent is still a year away from even being considered by the European Patent Office.
Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College and former chairman of the pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, told the inquiry that a very broad patent could stifle research but that intellectual property protection was vital if the science was to be exploited.
"The broader the patent, the more likely it is to fall when challenged, because the only true validity of a patent is its ability to resist legal challenge," he said.
Harry Griffin, assistant director of the Roslin Institute, the centre near Edinburgh where Dolly the sheep was cloned and which has received funding from Geron, defended the patent holders.
He said they had been "very generous in providing those embryonic stem-cell lines around the world. I do not think there is any inhibition on research progressing as a result of patents that have been taken out".