Legal wrangle gives boost to UK stem-cell research

The future of human stem-cell research – an area with potentially massive implications for the biotech and pharmaceutical industries – could be decided in an American courthouse. The outcome could produce a huge boost for UK-based research.

The future of human stem-cell research – an area with potentially massive implications for the biotech and pharmaceutical industries – could be decided in an American courthouse. The outcome could produce a huge boost for UK-based research.

Since the isolation of human embryonic stem cells by a Wisconsin researcher in 1998, the scientific community has been straining at the leash to embark on research using them. Stem cells are genetic "blank slates" that scientists believe can be made to grow into particular cells in the body. The hope is that the research could be turned into organs for transplant or used to fight disease.

The area has raised high-profile ethical issues, but the suggestion that stem cell research may yield so-called "miracle cures" is gradually gaining strength. President George Bush has now agreed to limited federal funding for human stem-cell research.

But like many other areas of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, researchers cannot get properly under way until a series of nagging legal issues are ironed out. Just as genes have been patented, so stem cells have prompted a "land grab" for intellectual property rights. Now that has ended in court, and the case will probably be the key to what research will be done and who will end up making the money out of it.

The case has been brought against Geron, the US biotech research firm, and is expected to unleash a lengthy battle over who will dominate the field. "Given that the science has the potential to revolutionise medicine," said one City analyst, "this is going to turn into a very significant battleground."

After the 1998 discovery, Geron paid the University of Wisconsin for its research and received extensive commercial rights to develop the university's five embryonic stem-cell lines. Wisconsin is now suing Geron over the exact ownership of the patents. The problem the court has to work out is just how far Geron's rights extend. If the court finds in its favour, it will virtually guarantee Geron's dominant position in regenerative medicine – the chief area that stem-cell research is targeting.

But the issue immediately brings in other companies working in the field, each eager to protect its interests. One example is BresaGen, an Australian company working on four of its own human embryonic stem-cell lines which recently opened a lab in the US. Already the possibility has been raised of a conflict of intellectual properties, and still more legal wrangling seems to be on the cards.

These may be only the first salvoes, but analysts are convinced that the stakes will get higher. One major beneficiary of all that could be the UK. In this country, where the rights to use embryonic stem cells are less limited than in the US, researchers have staked out a variety of patches.

The industry believes it is therefore likely, given the considerable strength of research in this country, that Britain will become the hub for the new science as it advances.

Travel
travel
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star