By Tom Still

MADISON – You have to admire how Californians think. They attract more venture capital than the rest of the nation combined, their universities produce patents like Oscar Mayer grinds out hot dogs, and their voters have pledged $3 billion in bonding authority to spend on human embryonic stem-cell research.
But to listen to our sun-drenched friends on the Left Coast, Wisconsin is holding them back… and being greedy in the process.
The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a watchdog group based in Los Angeles, has asked the federal government to overturn three stem-cell patents held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The requests were filed last week with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, just as the debate over federal funding for stem-cell research was nearing the boiling point on Capitol Hill.
The challenge asserts that Dr. James Thomson, the UW-Madison developmental biologist who was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells and to keep them alive in an unchanged state, was more or less a copycat. The watchdog group says the patents should never have been issued because Thomson’s discoveries were “obvious,” meaning other scientists had paved the way for what he did.
For the moment, let’s set aside the claim that Thomson’s work was “obvious” and not patentable – even though the Patent Office reviewed his two initial patents for three years each before issuing them, and they were peer-reviewed by half the biotechnology world. What’s really freaking out our beachside friends?
Answer: WARF won’t donate its stem cells to for-profit companies or private labs.
WARF has all but given away its stem cells to academic researchers in 21 nations, and trains those researchers in how to properly use those cells in their own labs. Because it exists to protect and commercialize UW inventions, however, WARF declines to simply hand off its intellectual property to others who might profit by their use. Private groups can buy WARF stem cells at $125,000 per batch, a fair price given how much those companies and labs stand to gain if their research leads to a billion-dollar cure. They just can’t get stem cells for free.
Even though an academic researcher can buy WARF cells for $500 – yes, $500 – and come to Madison for inexpensive training, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights claims WARF is essentially blocking the schoolhouse door.
“The folks in Wisconsin need to get the dollar signs out of their eyes and stop impeding vital research that needs to go forward,” John Simpson, the Foundation’s stem-cell project director, told one Wisconsin reporter.
California has been a black hole for private equity funding in the United States, sucking up billions of dollars for its academic and industrial research projects, yet Wisconsin is somehow guilty of techno-avarice for asking others to honor its patents? It’s akin to a well-armed Goliath whining because David was issued a slingshot.
No one knows how this challenge will turn out – the Patent Office will probably decide by fall whether to take it to the next stage — but WARF didn’t become a national leader in filing for academic R&D patents by leaving loopholes for lawsuits. Patents are written with legal challenges in mind; WARF has the experience and the resources to defend against those challenges.
The real problem in California’s stem-cell community is that, despite the $3 billion bond referendum, confusion still reigns in how to effectively harness the power of the state’s superb R&D infrastructure. No doubt, some in California envy Wisconsin’s well-organized stem-cell research efforts, which revolve around multi-disciplinary teams working on- and off-campus. Perhaps California research leaders would do better to emulate Wisconsin than try to undermine its claim to intellectual property.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.