Stem-cell patent holder’s view of the California challenge

Stem-cell patent holder’s view of the California challenge

Carl Gulbrandsen is the managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s technology-transfer center.
Will all human embryonic stem (hES) cell research move to California in light of the recent passage of a $3 billion bond initiative that is intended to make California the leader in a technology discovered by UW-Madison researcher Dr. James Thomson?
The simple answer is absolutely not. Wisconsin has many advantages. At the same time, California makes it imperative that Wisconsin recognize the tremendous potential of the research and develop a coordinated response by both government and the private sector to maintain our leadership. To put the California funding initiative in perspective, the National Institutes of Health spent $29 million in 2003 on this research across the entire nation. California is planning to spend $300 million per year for the next 10 years just in California.

Any California company that wants to take advantage of the funds available from the bonds will need a license from WARF.

California voters passed the initiative 59 percent to 41 percent. This support for the Proposition is even more incredible when one considers that less than six months ago California voters approved a $20 billion bond issue to help close a $36 billion budget deficit. Clearly voters believe that the research would lead to treatments and cures for devastating diseases and would contribute to an economic development boom that would make their investment pay off.
Citizens in Wisconsin are rightly concerned about our state’s ability to maintain our position as the founder and worldwide leader for this discovery. Dr. Harold Varmus, former Director of NIH, says, “It is not unrealistic to say that this research has the potential to revolutionize the practice of medicine and improve the quality and length of life.” So how can Wisconsin even hope to compete?
First, and most importantly, Dr. James Thomson, the first person to isolate and culture hES cells, is a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher and WiCell Research Institute’s Scientific Director. Dr. Thomson has assembled an impressive interdisciplinary team that works cohesively and has been extremely successful in securing NIH and private funding for the research.
WARF, through the university, has also been a significant contributor to stem cell research. In fact, the WARF Board of Trustees approved a project requested by the university and the Thomson team that will analyze gene expression of hES cells and of specific cell lineages derived from hES cells using gene chip arrays produced by NimbleGen, one of WARF’s start-ups. The NimbleGen technology developed at UW allows researchers to easily produce customized arrays for gene expression analysis. Dr. Thomson stated that it is his desire to focus his research in this area, and that this important research could occupy as much as the next ten years of his career.
Second, UW-Madison has over 50 researchers looking at some aspect of hES cell science. This includes the various diseases that could be helped by hES cell therapy, as well as ethicists and sociologists to examine the ethical and social implications of the research.

Rather than put our researchers in prison, the legislature should allocate funds to retain our scientists, recruit top new faculty, and provide-state-of-the-art facilities…

WARF also holds the basic patents for the hES cell technology along with about 30 additional patents and applications for additional discoveries made by Dr. Thomson and his team. It must be noted that any California company that wants to take advantage of the funds available from the bonds will need a license from WARF. We expect our licensing efforts to be accelerated by this huge infusion of funds, and we expect both short- and long-term benefits. The short-term benefits will be from up-front fees and milestone payments, while long term-royalty payments could be significant of benefit to WARF and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The productivity of WiCell researchers and their UW-Madison colleagues is evident in the large number of federal grant dollars received and papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. A total of 38 publications, 11 in 2003, have resulted from the stem cell research conducted at WiCell and the UW-Madison. Funding for this research at the UW-Madison topped $8 million in fiscal year 2003-04. Thirty patents have been filed on stem-cell discoveries at UW-Madison and WiCell. Our strategic plan calls for doubling all of these numbers within three years.
WiCell has successfully competed for federal funding, including an infrastructure grant from the National Center for Research Resources, and we have been named one of three national Exploratory Stem Cell Research Centers by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). This success suggests that we will continue to compete effectively for federal funding, especially given that California institutions will be inclined not to compete for federal dollars given the massive amount of local funds available.
This is not to say that California does not present challenges. Wisconsin government needs to be an active supporting partner for UW-Madison in its effort to remain a world leader in hES cell research. The state legislature needs at a minimum to do no harm. Bills to make felons of stem cell researchers, like those introduced in previous sessions, only make it more difficult to compete.
Rather than put our researchers in prison, the legislature should allocate funds to retain our scientists, recruit top new faculty, and provide-state-of-the-art facilities as an important step in securing economic development for our state.
The private sector and Wisconsin citizens also must make significant efforts to promote and develop an atmosphere of support and pride, not only for hES cell research, but the incredible economic engine that is the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Research into hES cells is just one of hundreds of technologies that have been licensed to companies who are developing products that will improve people’s lives, create jobs, and bring revenues back to the University. Wisconsin businesses can also find technologies at WARF that will help them develop new products to remain competitive.
The staffs at UW-Madison, WARF and WiCell are extremely proud of the plans we have made to remain the world leader and move hES cell science forward. We think the California initiative presents both challenges and opportunities, and we remain committed to providing continued service to the world stem-cell community to ensure that the promises of tomorrow become the reality of today.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.