Scientists warn against stifling effect of widespread patenting in stem cell field

Feb 11, 2011 By Michael Pena

( -- In an opinion piece published on Feb. 10 in the journal Science, a team of scholars led by a Johns Hopkins bioethicist urges the scientific community to act collectively to stem the negative effects of patenting and privatizing of stem cell lines, data and pioneering technologies. This means grappling with the ambiguity of several fundamental distinctions typically made in ethics, law, and common practice, the experts insist.

The team, led by Debra Mathews, Ph.D., M.A., of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of , says failures to properly manage the widespread patenting by both private and public organizations threatens to obscure what is and what isn’t in the public domain. In addition, this disarray may well hinder progress toward breakthroughs that could lead to new treatments the public desperately wants.

“Pervasive taking of intellectual property rights has resulted in a complex and confusing patchwork of ownership and control in the field of stem cell science,” says Mathews, assistant director for science programs at the Berman Institute. “While intellectual property provides a critical incentive to take basic scientific discoveries and translate them into marketable products, transparency about such property is equally critical.”

In addition to Mathews, the commentary was co-authored by David Winickoff, an associate professor of bioethics and society at the University of California, Berkeley; Gregory Graff, an assistant professor at Colorado State University with expertise in intellectual property rights; and Krishanu Saha, a postdoctoral fellow in stem cell research at the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research, in Cambridge, Mass.

“Following trends seen elsewhere in the sciences,” the authors write, “stem cell researchers—and the companies and universities for which they work—are increasingly taking private ownership of early-stage technologies, cell lines, genes and associated data.”

The tracking and trading of intellectual properties is much harder than the tracking and trading of other kinds of assets, such as real estate, according to Graff. He used the analogy of the popular real estate website, the Multiple Listing Service, saying there is no equivalent public “MLS” that serves as a property records registry for stem cell researchers.

“The lack of transparency about who owns what rights can hamper stem cell research and development,” Graff says, “and so can the resulting ambiguity of the distinction between what is private property and what is in the public domain.”

Further bogging down the field, the authors assert, is the increasing blurriness of two additional and fundamental distinctions. For one, the boundary that separates what is “information” and what is “material” gets more obscure by the day. Secondly, stem cells are not simply research material: All cell lines are derived from the tissues of human beings—people who may have an interest in the future of their genetic material and, by law, have certain personal rights that must be respected.

“Existing programs to reform science are based on a partial diagnosis of the problem,” says Winickoff. “We need a conceptual synthesis that reflects how entangle persons and things, information and materials, property and the public domain.

“A real solution to the problem,” Winickoff continues, “will have to manage all three of these complexities together, and we think we have a pathway for doing that.”

The authors echoed a recent consensus statement issued by the Hinxton Group, an international consortium of experts in stem cell science, ethics and law, which decries the increasingly secretive climate created by excessive patenting and proprietary claims within the stem cell community.

“There are very real concerns in industry about freedom to operate and concerns about lawsuits down the line, once they’ve invested a huge amount of money—and then, a patent pops up that they didn’t know about,” Mathews, a member of the Hinxton Group, said at a Jan. 24 panel discussion that coincided with the release of the consensus statement.

Both the statement and today’s article in Science call for collaborative information and materials hubs that would broaden access and help clarify what types of information are rightly proprietary and what types are not. One such hub, the authors suggest, might take the form of a centralized portal for access to existing databases, such as the UK Stem Cell Bank and the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry .

The authors also acknowledge that major challenges to the development of that and similar resources include securing funding, designing and programming talent, and deciding who would provide ongoing, administrative oversight.

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User comments : 8

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5 / 5 (4) Feb 11, 2011
Personally, I think that being able to patent a "gene" or any similar thing about life or genetics is BS. It certainly violates the founding principles of this nation anyway.

If people have a "right to life" then by definition patenting genetics or stem cell technology should be illegal, as everyone should have a "right" to access those technologies.
5 / 5 (4) Feb 11, 2011
There's got to be a better system than patents. It's terribly inefficient and forces people to expend great energies with what is essentially bureaucracy.

I know medical research requires much larger budgets than many other areas, where most findings are published and belong to the public, but there's got to be a better way to manage this!
5 / 5 (4) Feb 11, 2011
yeah I say scrap the patents all together. As for this foolish idea, I don't buy it.

This move would put a small group of people in charge of something that could (and probably will) become tainted with money, the group would eventually get tainted with lobbyist money. This idea is a problem waiting to happen, and these jerks will just sit back and take bribes to lock down things which they do not and never should ever own.
4 / 5 (3) Feb 12, 2011
The free market is good for the individual, not society.
3 / 5 (1) Feb 12, 2011
How much is too much? Can we calculate such things?
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 12, 2011
Scrapping patents as a whole would kill incentives to actually do much of this work, but I agree that the current system is broken and really needs to be fixed. How about this:

1) Exclusive licensing should be illegal. Patents are meant to reward the inventor, not the licensor.

2) Shorten the time patents last for. It is something like 25 years now I believe. In the modern world of rapid technological change, it should be more like 5-10.

3) Ban patents on things that are "discovered" rather than "invented". If you create a new gene, then you can patent it, but if the gene existed somewhere in the world first, you can't.
1.3 / 5 (4) Feb 12, 2011
If you ban patents, there will be no research done by the Drug Companies. It is the money that rolls in from the patented drugs that funds almost all advances. Put yourself in the place of the Drug Companies. Why would they do any research, unless they got the benefit of their investment. Don't forget that for every drug that
makes them money, they spend millions on ones that never come to fruition.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 12, 2011
That's right, but it's also where the frustration comes from: it's inefficient yet needed (for now). If someone could suggest changes or a new system it would be nice. It all comes down to rewarding the people who put in the money, but it doesn't have to be at the expense of everybody else, does it?

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