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Scientists highlight patenting problem in stem cell research

21 February 2011

By Gozde Zorlu

Appeared in BioNews 596

The widespread patenting and privatisation of stem cell lines, data and technology could hinder medical research in this field, a group of scientists has warned in a paper published in Science this month. The number of patents being awarded in stem cell research has made it difficult for researchers to identify who owns intellectual property rights, limiting access to stem cell lines and stifling scientific progress.

'Pervasive taking of intellectual property rights has resulted in a complex and confusing patchwork of ownership and control in the field of stem cell science', said lead author of the paper, Dr Debra Mathews of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics in the United States. Dr Mathews said while intellectual property rights provide a key role in turning basic research into marketable products, 'transparency about such property is equally critical'.

The management of intellectual rights in the field of stem cell research is particularly difficult because of the blurring of boundaries on what constitutes information and material, the authors explain. Furthermore, stem cells are not simply research material but are derived from the tissue of human beings giving rise to ethical considerations.

The paper calls for clarification and ways to broaden access to property rights. The researchers suggest one way to achieve this might take the form of a centralised portal for access to existing databases, such as the UK Stem Cell Bank and the US Human Embryonic Stem Cell Registry. They said collectivising access to cell lines and information will offset some of the negative effects of patents.

'Existing programs to reform science are based on a partial diagnosis of the problem', said Professor David Winickoff, associate professor of bioethics and society at the University of California and co-author of the article. 'We need a conceptual synthesis that reflects how stem cells entangle persons and things, information and materials, property and the public domain'.

'A real solution to the problem', Professor Winickoff continued, 'will have to manage all three of these complexities together, and we think we have a pathway for doing that'.

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