Companies are starting to position themselves to deal with the complex patent situations around stem cells.
A stem-cell reagents company has joined forces with a young therapeutics company to create a third entity to share intellectual property around induced pluripotent stem cells. StemGent, which sells reagents and other products to differentiate and dedifferentiate stem cells, has joined forces with Fate, which is developing small-molecules that stimulate adults’ own stem cells. They have created Catalyst, which will provide services to biotech and pharmaceutical companies that want to use reprogramming technologies in drug development. I spoke with Fate Therapeutics CFO Scott Wolchko about the new entity, and the company is either unsure or isn’t saying exactly what Catalyst will do.
A few things are clear: drug companies will gain access to the technologies through an annual subscription, and Catalyst won’t claim reach-thru rights to products developed through its technologies. Catalyst is going to develop rigorous protocols for technologies that have been shown in principle to work, but are currently too finicky and inefficient to use in the high throughput ways that companies need for drug development.
Fate and StemGent already share members on their illustrious scientific advisors and founders, along with access to their intellectual property. These include MIT’s Rudolf Jaenisch, who has created a variety of tools to probe the reprogramming process, including an all-genes-in-one vector that can snip itself out after reprogramming. Also, Sheng Ding of Scripps has finally found a way to reprogram cells without using any additional DNA at all. In fact, the announcement of Catalyst’s formation was timed to coincide with Ding’s publication of this accomplishment. (For links to that and other research, see the iPS cell reading list )
Fate CFO Wolchko wouldn’t say just how much drug companies would pay for a subscription or when they’d announce subscribers, but did say that Catalyst would have freedom to operate within an intellectual property landscape that I’ve heard several experts refer to as a minefield.
But the creation of Catalyst isn’t the only collaboration to combine intellectual property for reprogramming technologies. Just a few days before Catalyst was announced, another group was announcing its own dream team, a collaboration between biotech company iZumi and Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application. The Kleiner Perkins venture capital firm is famous for funding biotech company Genentech, three decades ago. More recently, it has put funds behind iZumi, which holds intellectual property on human iPS cells, which Kleiner Perkins has said it believes are as strong as WARF’s patents covering embryonic stem cells. Shinya Yamanaka holds posts at both Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institute, which collaborates with iZumi.
The intellectual property is going to take a long time to work out. A company patents a drug molecule, the patent covers the actual product that gets sold. But when a company patents a stem cell, it can block many more uses of an essential ingredient to make cells that could be used as potential therapies or research tools. Moreover, when a company patents a small molecule, it literally knows where every single atom should go. But the same cells can be made in multiple ways, meaning that different patents could cover essentially the same cell.
At a recent conference, venture capitalist Greg Bonfiglio predicted that companies would start to merge just to forge paths through these intellectual property landscapes. Clearly, entities hope to have it both ways distinct identities and shared intellectual property.
Proceedings of a conference on cooperation
2007 Nature Biotechnology article