Global patent war looms with epoch-making discovery of STAP cells

February 03, 2014

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

Japanese researcher Haruko Obokata's recent breakthrough in the creation of pluripotent stem cells in mice is set to trigger an all-out global patent war.

This is because of the huge potential for applications in regenerative medicine and related fields.

The 30-year-old stem cell biologist, who is head of a research team at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, made world headlines last week after the prestigious British scientific journal Nature carried her discovery of a new method to create pluripotent stem cells in mice.

It initially rejected a paper submitted by Obokata on her research into “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” (STAP), calling it “unbelievable.”

STAP cell creation is simpler than the process for induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, and gene damage in STAP cells is minimal compared with embryonic stem cells.

When Yoshiki Sasai, deputy director of Riken CDB, was asked about the patent application on the discovery at a news conference in Kobe on Jan. 28, he said, “I cannot discuss what we are doing.”

But it turns out that Riken took appropriate steps in the United States about a year ago, according to information available from the World Intellectual Property Organization.

In April 2013, it filed a patent application with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard University, and the Tokyo Women’s Medical University, partners in the joint research.

Aside from Obokata, Sasai and five others are listed as inventors in the 130-page application literature.

Preparations for the patent application filing got under way in April 2012, about two years before the Japanese researchers’ announcement of the discovery on Jan. 28.

Applying for a patent in the United States is comparable to simultaneously applying for a patent in all signatory countries of the Patent Cooperation Treaty.

Yutaka Ochi, vice chairman of the life science committee with the Japan Patent Attorneys Association, said the application covers the basic technique of creating STAP cells.

“What is significant is that (the application) includes Japanese parties such as Riken and Tokyo Women’s Medical University,” he said.

But Ochi said it is premature to say with certainty how much of the technique will be secured in the patent.

Shinya Yamanaka, the 2012 Nobel Prize winner in medicine who pioneered the technique to make iPS cells with his team at Kyoto University, had trouble obtaining a patent.

Kyoto University filed international applications in June 2012. About six months later, leading German drug company Bayer AG applied for a patent in Japan, which was narrowed down to basic elements of the iPS cell creation.

The move pitted Kyoto University against Bayer. But the patent was finally assigned to the university by way of a U.S. company.

Immediately after Nature carried the article on the creation of STAP cells on Jan. 29, U.S. news outlets reported that a program to treat monkeys with the use of STAP cells is under way at Harvard University, quoting Charles Vacanti, a professor of anesthesiology at the university.

Vacanti assisted Obokata while she did research at the university from 2008 and is listed in the Nature article and the international patent application as one of the inventors.

A research team at Harvard University began experiments on monkeys in December 2011, with an eye on clinical tests on humans with STAP cells.

The experiments involved the extraction of cells from monkeys whose limbs were paralyzed due to spinal injury and stimulated them with an acid bath or squeezing them through a capillary tube.

Researchers transplanted those cells into the paralyzed monkeys, which then began able to move their limbs. The researchers declined to give more details before making an official announcement of the results.

Koji Kojima, assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard University who is part of the team experimenting on monkeys, said the cells in question are deemed to be STAP cells.

However, he said this has not yet been verified.

(This article was compiled from reports by Tatsuyuki Kobori and Akiyoshi Abe.)

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  • Haruko Obokata, who heads a research unit at Riken Center for Developmental Biology (CDB), explains the technique to create pluripotent stem cells in mice at a news conference in Kobe on Jan. 28. (Takuya Isayama)

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