By Jeanne Loring.
On Wednesday afternoon at the ISSCR meeting in Boston, Jamie Thomson gave a talk about the history of human pluripotent stem cells. There were probably only a dozen people in the audience of around 3,000 who were working on human ES cells around the same time that Jamie and Joseph Itskovitz-Eldor were collaborating on the first derivation of human ES cells, which was published in 1998. I found myself laughing (quietly- honest!) at Jamie’s recollections- Mike West approaching him to offer funding from Geron, WARF’s machinations, the aggressive attorneys, the national politics.
I have to admit that I usually find myself mildly annoyed with Jamie’s lectures about this era, because they don’t quite mesh with my memories…so I was pleased that this time Jamie was so humble about his group’s success. And I agreed with him: making hESCs in the late 1990’s required three things: skills, human embryos, and money. Most of us had only two of the three- skills and embryos and/or money- but not all three. When WARF’s first patent was issued in 1998, the rest of us had little hope of raising money to continue. I rather miss those exciting times, when the events came rapidly- a presidential declaration, a lively argument with the WARF attorney at the NIH, when we didn’t know quite what would happen next.
My own small role in hESC history continues. My band of idealists- John Simpson, Dan Ravicher, and myself- are still working on our challenge of the third of WARF’s key patents on primate ES cells. The first two patents were first overturned in 2007 in response to our challenge, and were reinstated only after they narrowed their claims…which eliminated any chance of them being able to claim ownership of ALL human pluripotent stem cells (which would include iPS cells). WARF has hired some very pricy attorneys, but luckily we don’t have to worry about running out of money, because we all work for free!
By the way, the last time I saw Dan Ravicher was at the Supreme Court on April 15, during the arguments about patenting human genes…but that’s another story.