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A Senate Go on Stem Cells

July 19, 2006

In a challenge to President Bush’s ban, the Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would allow federal money to be used for human embryonic stem cell research.

The Senate voted 63 to 37 in favor of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. The House approved the bill in 2005 -- by a vote of 238 to 194 -- but it was stalled in the Senate, until this week.

Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who supports the bill, months ago negotiated with fellow Republicans to bring the legislation to a vote. In order to gain support, Frist helped package two other measures with the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. One would outlaw “fetus farming,” or the use of embryos gestated explicitly for research purposes, which biomedical research experts say isn't evident as a current problem.Anti-abortion activists, though, have made the prospect of fetus farming part of their opposition to stem cell research.

The other would have the National Institutes of Health support research on ways to derive stem cells without harming human embryos. Both of the measures passed unanimously.

President Bush said this week that he plans to veto the Stem Cell Research Enhancement. Though the act passed the Senate, it did not get the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto. It would be President Bush’s first veto.

Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said Tuesday that Bush feels that it’s “inappropriate to finance something that some people consider murder. [Bush] is one of them.”

A Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research opinion poll found that 72 percent of respondents support stem cell research, and many of the senators who spoke in favor of the bill emphasized that some embryos in fertility clinics will simply be thrown out as trash, and should at least be used to cultivate stem cells.

The coalition applauded the bipartisan support Tuesday, and immediately set to work in trying to persuade Bush to rethink his position. Sean Tipton, the coalition's president, sent Bush a personal letter and a statement of support for the bill signed by 591 entities, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association of American Universities, the American Council on Education, and the Association of American Medical Colleges.

A number of senators, both Monday and Tuesday, engaged in a protracted game of disease one-upmanship, with several senators describing their own illnesses, or illnesses of their staffers, relatives, or constituents, and adding that the prospect of human embryonic stem cell research gives them hope.

Senators opposed to human embryonic stem cell research emphasized the fact that the research is occurring, just not with taxpayer dollars, and that research with adult stem cells has produced all the important applications in stem cell research to date.  

Senators on both sides of the aisle trotted out creative rhetorical presentations. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) on Monday displayed a poster with pictures of human embryos on the left, with arrows pointing to pictures of famous people on the right. He used the diagram to point out that Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, and John F. Kennedy all began as human embryos. “We all started as human embryos,” Brownback said, adding that it “doesn’t matter where that fertilization occurred.”

Brownback then drew an imperceptible dot on another poster, and chided stem cell research supporters for not protecting an embryo of that size simply because “it’s small and can’t do anything for itself.” He added that, before the Big Bang, the universe was also an imperceptible dot, and that it wouldn’t have got far had it been aborted due to its size and apparent lack of meaningful activity.

The stem cell action didn’t end in the Senate. Some stem cell research advocates say that, in addition to the ban on the use of federal money for stem cell research, a trio of patents held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, a nonprofit that manages the University of Wisconsin’s intellectual property, are needlessly restricting stem cell research.

The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights yesterday filed a challenge to the Wisconsin patents, asking the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to examine nullifying them.

The patents were first awarded to James A. Thomson, a Wisconsin scientist who first isolated embryonic stem cells in 1998, and they cover essentially all uses of embryonic stem cells in the United States.

“We actually think that these outrageous, overreaching patents are actually a greater impediment than the lack of federal funding,” said John Simpson, stem cell project director at the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer rights.

WARF grants free licensing for academic research. Simpson, who called the patents “obnoxious,” said that it is far from “free,” because academic researchers, if they discover clinical applications through their stem cell research, have to go through WARF before commercializing them and bringing them to the bedside.

Andy Cohn, a spokesman for WARF, said that the alumni foundation has been reasonable in its management of the patents. Cohn said that WARF has licensed embryonic stem cells to 326 academic research groups that can “publish any discovery they make, with the only notification due to us is that they’ve made an advancement, and that we can use that on campus for nonprofit research.”

A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that some companies are conducting their research overseas, rather than paying WARF.

Cohn said that, depending on the company size, WARF will ask a licensing fee between $75,000 and $250,000 plus royalties. For some start-ups, Cohn said, “we’ve agreed to take equity, with no charge up front.” He added that WARF has “12 commercial licenses, so obviously a number of companies feel that the terms are reasonable.” Cohn added that all the money goes back into research at Wisconsin.  

One of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights’s main points that it hopes to convey to the patent office is that animal stem cell research, conducted with public money, prior to the Wisconsin patents made the patented material both possible and obvious, and that it should therefore be un-patentable.

“From the perspective of the scientists doing this research,” said Jeanne Loring, a  stem-cell researcher at the Burnham Institute in California who spoke with Simpson at a press conference Tuesday. “We don’t feel we should be restricted by patents, or even have to understand patents.” The Wall Street Journal reported that Loring “holds a small equity position in Novocell,” a company that seeks a stem cell cure for diabetes, but has not come to a licensing agreement with WARF.

Rebecca Eisenberg, a patent law professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in biomedical research, said that the president’s ban on federally funded human embryonic stem cell research might make privately funded research all the more important.

Eisenberg added that, since there’s not a lot of precedent in the sector, it’s hard to tell how reasonably WARF is behaving in any given case. She added that this is the kind of issue researchers run into when public money isn’t available for research.

 

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