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3 posts from February 2012

February 29, 2012

Breakfast in the shire: How is the UK reacting to Brüstle v Greenpeace?

by David Kent

Last week I attended a breakfast at Eversheds, a law firm in Cambridge entitled Stem cell patenting, Brüstle v Greenpeace: business breaker or business as usual? which focused on the practical implications of the recent decision from the Court of Justice of the European Union on human embryonic stem (ES) cells. The event organizer, Adrian Toutoungi began the session with a summary of where things stand for hopeful patent applicants which included much of the information that Ubaka Ogbogu reported in his recent article on this site with two interesting supplements:

  1. If the implementation of the invention requires the destruction of human embryos, it will not be patentable and it is irrelevant that such destruction may occur at a stage long before implantation
  2. Inventions are also not patentable even if the claims of the patent do not cover the actual use of human embryos.

Following this groundwork, two speakers gave their viewpoints on where this leaves the field, both with respect to pursuing patents in the current climate and with the future of ES cell research in the UK. 

First up, Neil Thornton provided historical context for the ruling.  Prior to this new ruling, the status quo was the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) patent that prohibited human ES cells and cells derived from human embryos from being patented. This new ruling extends the prohibition to cells derived from human ES cell lines or cells derived from human ES cells. Whereas the WARF ruling allowed for patents on inventions that utilized previously created ES cell lines, the Brüstle v. Greenpeace ruling very clearly does not. Dr. Thornton pointed out that the European Patent Office (EPO) is not bound by the Court of Justice of the European Union and has not yet made an official statement regarding the Brüstle v. Greenpeace ruling (though one is expected soon). However, he did quote EPO president Benoit Battistelli from his blog where he said, “If the judges rule in favour of a restrictive interpretation of biotech patentability provisions, the EPO will immediately implement it.” 

Dr. Thornton also speculated on the way forward for those pursuing patents, saying that inventions excluded because they use human ES cells could be viewed as applying to only those technologies where there is no plausible alternative. Therefore, depending on what exactly ends up in the EPO statement, there may be room to patent an invention that could plausibly have used cells from these alternate sources at the time of patent filing (i.e.: using a non-embryo destructive cell source or technique like induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) or single blastomeres.

Dr. Thornton elaborated with a clever analogy of a obtaining a patent on a method to open a locked safe, which would have a morally acceptable use (by a locksmith) and a morally unacceptable use (by a burglar). Under the EPO's current guidelines, he continued, a morally unacceptable use for an invention is not sufficient to deny patent protection if the invention can also be used in a morally acceptable way. He then speculated that if inventions relating to human ES cells were treated in the same way, the EPO could possibly grant claims that would cover the use of cells produced by embryo destructive or non-destructive techniques. There was some discussion following this point around how similar iPS cells are to ES cells and whether or not they could be viewed as a plausible alternative. 

The second speaker was Cathy Prescott of Biolatris (I featured Dr. Prescott in a previous entry on the Royal Society meeting in 2010), who presented on the impact of this ruling for venture capitalists, industry, and academics. Dr. Prescott started with some numbers that made very clear the low level of investment from members of the BVCA (British Venture Capital Association) into the biotechnology field (1% of all technology investments in the UK) citing reasons of uncertain risk management especially in the area of intellectual property which is viewed as the major currency in the biotech sector. According to Dr. Prescott, “No IP = a non starter.” 

From an industry perspective, she noted that the products and services focused on human ES cells were largely either “tools and reagents” or “therapeutics” and quoted a major company delivering tools and reagents into the research market as saying “if this ban were to prevent patenting of downstream methods… [it would] negatively affect business.” The final area that Dr. Prescott commented on was academic research. The most obvious impact, which has precedence in the United States, is that scientists themselves may relocate to those more permissive environments – in this case, to those where they can protect their of applied research. Secondly, it is entirely possible that various EU states may query whether or not it is worth funding non-commercializable research. For now though, Dr. Prescott stressed that both the EC and the UK are committed to continuing to fund ES cell research as a priority area despite patent concerns, including the major government investment made last autumn.

Overall, as an academic researcher, I found the event particularly useful as a high quality synthesis of the ruling’s implications. It certainly left the impression that things were far from decided. For now, it seems that we will have to wait and see what the EPO decides with respect to ES related patents and how stem cell scientists and universities will move forward with respect to patenting in this sector. 


February 10, 2012

Inside the Sauvageau lab

by Lisa Willemse

One of the advantages of working in an admin office of an organization that funds stem cell research is that you tend to hear about what's happening in labs all across the country. So when I heard that some interesting things were happening in the Guy Sauvageau lab, I decided to pay an overdue visit to Montreal to talk to Guy and do some filming in the lab. It was a miserable December day -- rain sheeting down sideways -- and, well, even if everything didn't go exactly as planned that day, the lab was warm and welcoming.

While the video footage is not yet ready for posting (stay tuned), I did write an article on the visit, which has been posted in an excellent blog -- "The Crux" -- run by Lynne Quarmby, a molecular biologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (and a writer of insightful, thought-provoking blogs about research and the realities of being a basic researcher in Canada).

Read the complete blog profile of the Sauvageau lab.


February 01, 2012

News roundup: open access, new funding for personalized medicine and spinal cord injury update

by Lisa Willemse

Some updates and news items of note:

Call for boycott of subscriber-based journals gains momentum

The ongoing friction between proponents of open access and the academic publishers has jumped into the spotlight once again with calls from a number of academics, most notably from prominent British mathmetician Tim Gowers, who publicly announced his decision to stop submitting and reviewing for Elsevier. His objections are worth reading. Within days of his comments, a web site was created that allows other researchers to pledge their support for open access and against the practices of Elsevier and other academic publishers. At time of writing, there were over 2400 signatures. Of course, this is not the first time such calls for open access have surfaced from within the research community, the last big push resulted in the formation of the Public Library of Science in 2000. 

Nor are the sentiments limited to the mathematics field -- within stem cells, Jim Till has long been a proponent of open access and keeps a close eye on relevant news on his blog and Alexey Bersenev has several posts on the topic on his blog, Stem Cell Assays. His summary of the current events includes a good list of the reasons for open access as well as links to other sources for the interested reader.

Shift to personalized medicine finds federal support

Yesterday, the Canadian Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq, announced a new initiative worth upwards of $135 million ($67.5M from federal sources, to be matched by partner funds) with a focus on personalized medicine -- the use of genetics, biomarkers and environmental conditions to tailor disease treatments to individual patients. The announcement was essentially a call for applications and while specific projects are not yet known, they will have a strong genomics component and be readily translatable into a clinical setting. More reason for those working in translational research to be happy, and yet another sign that basic research is in trouble.  

A good chunk of the funds is coming from Genome Canada, with other support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium. Specifically, the contribution from the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium will support the highest ranking cancer stem cell research project. All projects are expected to last four years.  

Update to spinal cord injury summary

Finally, a note that the entry on spinal cord injury within the Stem Cell Network's patient section has been updated and expanded. We are working to update all the entries in this section and to add new ones in the coming year.