Medical Patent Opportunity in “Skin Cell Therapy”?
An article in today’s online edition of BBC News (BBC News Online, December 7, 2007) explored the ins and outs of "reprogramming skin cells" to combat sickle cell anemia. Researchers at the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research in Massachussetts are conducting intense research to discover a safe way to turn skin cells into stem cells. Partly, this is to skirt around the controversy surrounding the use of stem cells and partly it reflects the ready abundance of skin cells.
And, herein lies the patenting opportunity as well as the heart of the ethical debate. The researchers have yet to find a way to keep the reprogrammed skin cells from making random DNA changes elsewhere in the body, which can lead to dangerous complications like cancer. This is because, at the moment, researchers are using retroviruses to insert therapeutic genes into skin cells to create what they call "induced pluripotent stem cells," or IPS. Retroviruses are volatile and "can disrupt genes that should not be disrupted or activate genes that should not be activated," which, of course, can lead to harmful side effects.
Developing a patented "delivery system that doesn’t integrate itself into the genome" is the specific area of opportunity, but I wonder if it’s possible? Stem cells themselves are pluripotent, meaning they are able to be transformed into any type of cell within the body. The team continues to conduct research to discover the secrets within our cells and DNA, and maybe one day (and maybe sooner than we think) it will become a patented reality. On the other hand, maybe we cannot hope to wholly control or transform our cells–the most fundamental unit of our lives–without unintended, disastrous consequences. A patented impossibility?