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.

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