Home' Technology Review : September 2005 Contents 48 FEATURE STORY
that his group was not letting other Swedes work with its stem
cell lines, or even conducting experiments with them itself at the
time. An Australian group was willing to make its stem cells
available, Lensch says, "but it was during the foot-and-mouth
outbreak there." To export the cells to the U.S., the Australians
"had to provide documentation that they were free of agricultur-
ally important infections. And of course nobody in Australia had
tested the lines for foot-and-mouth disease," he says. Six months
after joining his new lab, Lensch had only a single line, from
Thomson's collaborator, Joseph Itskovitz-Eldor of the Technion-
Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa.
All the while, he was negotiating for two lines with the Uni-
versity of California, San Francisco (UCSF), another Geron-
funded lab. In the past, Lensch says, a researcher who borrowed
materials developed by a second researcher usually came back
after making an interesting discovery to o er coauthorship of the
resulting paper, thus spreading around the glory. As universities
have become more intent on exploiting their intellectual prop-
er ty nancially, they have begun asking borrowers to sign for mal
"materials transfer agreements" that spell out what can be done
with borrowed materials. Usually the agreements authorize spe-
ci c researchers to work with the materials, describe what the
materials can be used for, and list the circumstances under which
the materials' creators must be given credit in publications. The
UCSF agreement, in Lensch's view, went further. "To begin
with, they could stop your research at any time," he says. "And
whatever I could make with [the two stem cell lines], they would
continue to own. In e ect, I became an employee of UCSF."
Lensch eventually obtained both cell lines from UCSF in Sep-
tember 2002. But Harvard University, which is a liated with
Children's Hospital Boston, is still negotiating licensing terms
with WARF, whose stem cell patents cover a wide range of appli-
cations. According to Patrick Taylor, chief counsel for research
a airs at Children's Hospital, WARF is protecting its intellectual
property with an "unfortunate perseverance" that, in a kind of
negative synergy, has coupled with the Bush regulations to im-
pede stem cell research.
WARF's Cohn denies that the foundation has created hurdles.
"Our goal is to distribute the cells as quickly and painlessly as
possible for both researchers and us," he says, noting that some
250 research teams now use WARF lines. "We don't make money
doing this. In fact, we lose money doing this---$1.3 million so far.
It's part of our commitment to moving the science for ward."
But because WARF holds patents so fundamental to stem cell
research, Taylor says, it e ectively controls much of the eld.
WARF obtained such rights, Taylor argues, only because the
"federal abdication of funding" meant that it had anomalously
few rivals. And while the gover nment demands that the research-
ers it backs minimally restrict their colleagues, most private or-
ganizations don't. So privatizing every aspect of this fundamental
new research will lead to "a thicket of con icting patents" that
will make it "extremely di cult to do any research."
Exemplifying Taylor's worries are the hundreds of patents,
patent lings, and exclusive licenses with which Geron has fur-
ther locked up prime intellectual property. The company might
provoke less complaint if it were a pharmaceutical giant like
Merck or P zer that can support researchers around the world.
But Geron has spent only $90 million on stem cell research since
1995. As Geron's Greenwood admits, the company can support
only a handful of labs, which have free access to its intellectual
property. Everyone else is out in the cold.
The result, in Taylor's view, is a classic instance of the law of
unintended consequences: because the federal government
won't support most stem cell research, the work must be spon-
sored by private industry. But no corporation will support re-
search that it can't bene t from. The same regulations that open
the door for private industry also e ectively shut it.
Children's Hospital is near a Boston neighborhood historically
full of doctors that is referred to, predictably, as Pill Hill. Chil-
dren's has almost a dozen buildings on its main campus and more
than 4,000 doctors, nurses, and sta members overall. One of its
buildings houses the world's biggest pediatric research lab.
In an upper- oor wing of another, smaller building is Lensch's
new stem cell lab. To the casual visitor, it looks much like any
other biomedical research center. There are long lines of lab
benches punctuated by computer screens and white and gray ma-
chines. Shelves are crammed with bottles and jars bearing cryp-
tic, hand-scrawled labels. The only slight oddity is that several
small rooms in this otherwise tightly packed space are empty of
everything but a few boxes and pieces of what looks like dis-
carded equipment. In these unused spaces, Children's Hospital
hopes to experiment with embryonic stem cells.
The separate rooms are a consequence, in part, of George
Daley's conclusion that pushing stem cell research for ward
would require shifting from federally supported "presidential"
cell lines to "nonpresidential" lines---ones that had not been iso-
lated before Bush's 2001 speech. Daley, who directs Lensch's re-
search, rst arrived at Children's in November 2003, lured by its
o er of a brand-new facility and some startup money. (Until then,
he had worked at MIT's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Re-
search.) A prominent blood researcher, Daley wanted to unlock
the mechanisms of bone marrow diseases like leukemia and
aplastic anemia. He quickly saw the potential of embryonic stem
cells and won one of the rst NIH grants to study them.
As Daley discovered when planning the stem cell facility, "go-
ing nonpresidential" meant that he had to ensure that it was not
supported by federal money. The rules created endless bureau-
cratic tangles and drove up costs enormously. Says Erik Halvorsen
of Har vard's O ce of Technology Development, which handles
licensing on the stem cell lines developed by Harvard researcher
Douglas Melton, at rst "nobody understood what it meant when
you couldn't use federal funds. Did that mean [the gover nment
couldn't pay for] anything in the lab space? Did that include
things down to the level of the individual pipette? What if feder-
ally approved and nonfederally approved research were in two
adjoining rooms? Did that mean the government could pay up to
a certain percentage for things like heating?"
To be "on the safe side," he says, Harvard created a com-
pletely separate facility with brand-new equipment for Melton's
team. Children's took another route, sequestering its stem cell
work in special, isolated rooms---setting up a second laboratory,
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