WHO CONTROLS STEM CELL RESEARCH? Patent Dispute Between Wisconsin and California Could Potentially Stall Research

It's rare in media coverage to see a focus on the PATENTS/PROPERTY RIGHTS dimension of stem cell research, even though patents are the engine driving research. But this weekend, the Wisconsin State Journal spotlights a developing dispute between the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). At issue is CIRM's ability to require that 25% of all earnings from grant-supported research be given back to the state of California. The problem is that WARF, which holds the patents on most stem cell research in the United States, wants its share, and is challenging the CIRM decision.

The focus on patent disputes does not bode well for the public image of stem cell research since it interjects a second potentially negative interpretation into the debate, in this case a focus on PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY: Are scientists looking out for the public's interest in how they spend state money, or are they looking out for their own and/or private interests? It's an interpretation that is tailor made for the courts, and it also resonates with journalistic instincts to hold public officials accountable, even if in this case, public officials are scientists.

Here is how the Wisconsin State Journal describes the PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY angle:

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a nonprofit watchdog group in California, called on CIRM to challenge WARF's patents in court. "It would truly be a shame if a research organization in Wisconsin threw up a blockade to vital, publicly funded research in California," John Simpson, stem-cell project director for the group, wrote in a letter to WARF.
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