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PRIMATE EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS U.S. Patent No. 6,200,806 Issued:March 2001 to James Thomson Assigned tWisconsin Alumni Research Foundation Prosecuted by:Quarles & Brady Litigated by:Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe; John Skilton, lead partner Embryonic stem cells are as undecided as a college freshman. They can become heart muscle, bone, skin — virtually any type of human tissue. But stem cells pick their major pretty quickly: roughly a week after an embryo is created. James Thomson’s breakthrough was in finding a way to isolate and maintain stem cells to keep them from differentiating. Thomson’s cells can reproduce indefinitely in the laboratory, producing a limitless supply. The potential is enormous. By figuring out how to direct their differentiation, researchers can help stem cells become blood cells to boost dwindling supplies, skin to replace that lost by burn victims, or heart muscle damaged by disease. Specialized cells can also enable drug researchers to screen new compounds more quickly. Research in these areas is well under way. The stem cell controversy has been enormous, too. Many worry that cells may come from aborted embryos, or from embryos produced for the sole purpose of harvesting them. Swayed by the potential of stem cell research, the Bush administration lifted the ban on federal funding for stem cells last year for a limited number of stem cell lines. It was the lack of funding that led Thomson, a University of Wisconsin researcher, to seek private support for his work. The source of those funds — biotechnology company Geron Corp. — later obtained an exclusive license to six cell types created from Thomson’s research. But after Bush’s announcement, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which held the patent, worried that Geron could stifle the flood of competing research the new federal funding would enable. In August 2001, WARF filed suit to take back, or at least limit, Geron’s exclusivity. The two parties settled in January 2002. Geron relinquished exclusivity in three of the six cell types, and agreed to nonexclusive rights on any future cell types, thus paving the way for more research by other scientists. Alan Cohen is a free-lance writer based in New York City. His e-mail is [email protected].

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