Pioneer criticises culture of patenting

September 21, 2001

Stem-cell pioneer Martin Evans, who has been awarded the prestigious Lasker award this week, says that he might not have succeeded in today's climate.

Professor Evans, director of the school of biosciences and professor of mammalian genetics at Cardiff University, said that the trend for patenting is closing the door to collaboration and holding back progress.

"Companies have scrabbled to get primary patents out of work that has been largely publicly funded," he said.

"Everything is looked on to be secreted away. When I discovered mouse embryonic stem cells, I made every effort (to ensure) that we could make them genuinely available. I gave out lines to people, always provided the information and we published freely. Our main aim was actually to facilitate the science. If we were of this age, I would have been expected to have tried to lock the whole thing up."

Professor Evans, a fellow of the Royal Society and a founder fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, was due to be awarded the 2001 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research ("America's Nobel") in New York today.

Sixty-three of the more than 300 people who have won a Lasker since 1945 have gone on to win a Nobel prize.

Professor Evans shares the award with Mario Capecchi, of the University of Utah, and Oliver Smithies, of the University of North Carolina. Together, their work enabled the creation of "designer" mice, genetically engineered with conditions from high blood pressure to Alzheimer's and cystic fibrosis. There are now more than 4,000 such strains of mice.

Professor Evans, 60, said: "Previous winners are the most prestigious group of scientists. I'm very honoured to step into their company."

After a biochemistry degree at Cambridge University, Professor Evans began his career with research into teratocarcinoma, monster tumours that can contain skin, teeth, muscle and hair. This led to the discovery of stem cells - cells that could grow into anything.

Each mouse embryo has only a few dozen stem cells and they exist for a limited time, making them almost impossible to observe. Professor Evans set out to grow embryo stem cells in isolation so that he could look at them in detail.

If he could create many millions of stem cells in culture, he would be able to pick out rare mutants and replace them in embryos.

He achieved this in 1981 with the help of Matt Kaufman from Cambridge. Capecchi and Smithies visited Professor Evans to learn his techniques. They went on independently to develop techniques for targeting specific genes and altering them.

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