Yes, the news today, such as it is, is legal. Nothing really new on the research front. The patent story is not especially new either, but it gives an update on the current situation regarding the Wisconsin Alumni Research Association and the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. The WARF holds the patents for deriving embryonic stem cells; if the CIRM makes substantial profits from embryonic stem cell research, the WARF wants a piece of the pie. Because the CIRM is not just universities but includes private biotech companies, the WARF sees it as a commercial enterprise rather than a non-profit one. The license fees could potentially take much of the money that would otherwise go to research and facilities.
A story in the Wisconsin State Journal covers the issue in depth. At the moment, neither side is intending to go to litigation, although the WARF patents have been challenged in print as too broad. (There has been no court challenge.) The managing director of the WARF says that he wants to come to a collaboration and not hold up research, but he also wants to see Wisconsin get its share. The money the WARF receives from the embryonic stem cell patents is funneled back into research and facilities.
Because the WARF patents are in effect only in the United States, researchers outside the US can use the embryonic stem cells for work at a cheaper cost than what biotech firms in the US must pay. Biotech companies see this as hurting competition and putting the US further behind other nations.
I personally am pretty fascinated by this legal issue, because it has really far-reaching implications for science. My knee-jerk reaction is that people who are making a profit on somebody else’s research owes that somebody else something. But on the other hand, I feel that knowledge is community property and should not be commercialized. I guess my dilemma would be solved if companies stopped making money on their work (the profits of drug companies are astronomical) and we could have pure research for research’s sake, but that is never going to happen. On the third hand, many biotech companies are operating on a very slim margin and aren’t making a profit, and charging fees they can’t afford impedes research. Except the fees pay for research in Wisconsin. And on the carousel goes.