Geron opposes patent decision 

Menlo Park biotech company Geron Corp. (GERN) said Tuesday that it opposes a decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to reject a set of important embryonic stem-cell patents, to which it holds the commercial development rights.

A company spokesman said the company was unlikely to be harmed by the ruling, however.

Through a patent licence with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Geron holds the valuable commercial rights to develop treatments based on neural, cardio and insulin-producing cells developed from embryonic stem cells isolated by University of Wisconsin researcherJames Thomson.

The federal patent office on Friday rejected WARF’s three patent claims on those cells. The nonprofit Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and the Public Patent Foundation had challenged the patents last summer, saying that the patents were "impeding scientific progress and driving vital stem cell research overseas," according to a release. They further argued that Thomson’s work was "obvious in the light of previous scientific research, making his work unpatentable."

The decision makes Geron’s exclusive rights void, broadening potential competition for any treatments developed from the stem cells. WARF has said it still believes the patents are legitimate and hopes that the patent office’s decision changes as it continues its review. Geron, which settled a lawsuit with WARF in 2002 that reduced its commercial rights from six to three stem-cell types, said in a release that it supports WARF’s position.

"It’s so early in the process… It does not mean that the patents will not be found valid," Geron spokesman David Schull said. Even if they were ultimately rejected, he said, "Geron is so much further along than anyone else in developing these products."

The three stem cell types may be used to repair spinal cord injury, heart disease, diabetes and other ailments. Geron plans on beginning its first human clinical trials for its spinal-cord injury product next year, Schull said.

Analysts agreed that Geron can weather the loss, if the patent office does maintain its ruling.

Loss of exclusivity of the contested stem cells is "inconsequential as far as Geron is concerned," WBB Securities President Steven Brozak said. "Geron has 250 other patents… pound for pound, Geron has more patents than anybody."

A bigger effect, Brozak said, is that more people will recognize how important intellectual property is in the stem-cell field. Brozak also believes that majorpharmaceutical companies may now show more interest in conducting their own stem-cell research, rather than buying technologies from smaller firms.

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