Can we repeat that success in new areas of science, such as stem cell research? Many Americans assume that once the current restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research have been lifted, America will surge to the forefront. A quick glance at the field seems to bear that out.
· While Stanford granted 73 nonexclusive licenses in less than a year, WARF has awarded just 13 licenses in eight years under economic terms that many believe have slowed the sector's growth. [IPBiz notes that Fuller and Reeve NEGLECT to mention that research institutions working in this area do NOT need a license, because their actions will fall under the exemption of 35 USC 271(e)(1).]
· The ongoing political debate over the appropriate use of embryonic stem cells and the low level of government support have denied stem cell research the catalyst provided to biotechnology -- even as other countries are investing aggressively.[IPBiz notes that Fuller and Reeve neglect to point out that even WITH funding, scientists in other countries have not achieved the human SCNT claimed by Hwang in his FIRST paper published in the journal Science.]
· The entry of individual states into the breach left by the federal government has helped drive research activity. But it has also created a patchwork of regulations and funding levels that constrains research collaboration. [IPBiz notes that once states figure out what is going on in intellectual property, there probably will be RESEARCH collaboration.]
· Expensive and restrictive enabling patents, political controversy and the absence of federal research money, coupled with a long time to market, have made venture capitalists reluctant to invest. In 2005, just over $100 million in venture capital went to stem cell ventures, compared with $500 million in biotech ventures at an equivalent stage. [IPBiz suspects that VCs are avoiding this area because there is a low probability of payout in the ten year future.]
· Constraining federal research support to a selected area -- such as certain cell types and lines -- is not a sensible research policy. Advances with stem cells from amniotic fluid and the pulp of baby teeth have been in the news recently, but as the authors of those studies point out, such cells, while promising, cannot take the place of embryonic cells. These restrictions divert valuable time and effort in a way that is not occurring in Britain or Singapore.
In short, the stem cell sector is at risk of experiencing a failure to launch at the national level. Yes, some progress is being made: WARF has just revised some of its licensing policies; venture capital activity has picked up recently; and academic research and clinical centers, disease foundations and patient-advocacy groups are adopting a more aggressive stance in breaking down existing barriers. But will this be enough? Or will foreign governments, using America's biotech success as a model, systematically encourage the development of stem cell research and, not satisfied with emulating our competitive performance, succeed in outstripping us?
IPBiz notes the old "foreigners will beat us" scare story. American aviation "survived" the patent of the Wright Brothers, and American electronics "survived" the patents on the integrated circuit. The foreigners have had a tremendous head start on human SCNT and have come up with zero.
See also a a discussion of an earlier op-ed which criticized the WARF patents, [Los Angeles Times Article Way Off Base on Stem Cell Issues].