By Jeanne Loring
If you’ve been paying attention to the stem cell world, you’ll remember Woo Suk Hwang, who nearly derailed the future of stem cell research by very publically proclaiming that he had made human embryonic stem cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).
No, this has nothing to do with Shoukhrat Mitalipov’s report of successful generation of SCNT hESCs last year (reported by Paul at http://www.ipscell.com/tag/shoukhrat-mitalipov/). The difference is that Shoukhrat really did make human SCNT ESCs.
Hwang did not. He claimed that he had made SCNT hESCs in two high profile papers in Science in 2004 and 2005 (W. S. Hwang et al. Science 303, 1669–1674; 2004 and W. S. Hwang et al. Science 308, 1777–1783; 2005). Both have turned out to be complete and deliberate fakes. The discovery that the results were fraudulent were devastating to the stem cell scientific community; we’ve never quite gotten rid of the tarnish that rubbed off on us all and has made the public suspicious of stem cell research ever since. Nature did a very nice post-mortem on the events, which can be found at http://www.nature.com/news/specials/hwang/index.html.
Now, Hwang is back. He confessed to making up the results, but he didn’t withdraw the patents he’d filed on this falsified work. Yesterday, his patent (see actual USPTO patent file here) on the fake work, was issued by the U.S. Patent Office. Below is the front page of the patent.
You might ask, how can someone get a patent on something that doesn’t exist?
There was an article written on this question in 2006 in the New Scientist http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn8601-disgraced-cloning-pioneer-could-keep-his-patents.html – .Uvqi8v1BCAc. I didn’t have to search hard to find this article- it’s referenced, right on the front page of the patent (see the list on the right side)!
This is one of those things that scientists can’t get their arms around. I have patents, but they are all on real things, so they make sense. But it turns out that you don’t have to create something real to get a patent. Hwang’s patent claims are broad, claiming “an embryonic stem cell (ESC) line derived from a nucleus-transferred oocyte prepared by transferring a nucleus of a human somatic cell into an enucleated human oocyte”.
So is this just so much silliness, like the patent issued on a flying saucer by the British Railways Board in 1973?
Unfortunately not, as the New Scientist article points out: “The Hwang (patent) could block subsequent patents on work that constitutes an obvious extension of what Hwang described, even if the Hwang work proves unworkable itself.” This means that Hwang’s patent will be considered to be “prior art” for any other patent application on SCNT hESCs, and may make it difficult to patent real SCNT hESCs.
My take on this? My challenge of the WARF patents made me learn a great deal about patents and patent law, and trust me, the principles you cherish as scientists simply don’t apply for patents. The fact is that Hwang’s patent could impede further work on SCNT hESCs. The patent owners may demand a licensing fee for use of any SCNT hESCs and collect royalties on any commercial application of SCNT hESCs. This is not out of the realm of possibility: those are the terms that WARF imposed on blastocyst-derived hESCs, but at least those were real.