Published online 28 January 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.43


Britain grants patent for iPS cells

The first issued outside Japan for reprogrammable stem cells credits different inventors.

A Californian biomedical company, iPierian, has been granted the first patent issued outside Japan for the genetic reprogramming technology used to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

Induced pluripotent stem cells have the ability to develop into any cell type in the body.James Thomson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The 12 January decision, by the UK Intellectual Property Office, does not involve the work of Kyoto University's Shinya Yamanaka, whom many consider to have invented the technology behind iPS cells. Instead it credits the invention to a competing group of Japanese researchers, led by Kazuhiro Sakurada, who worked in Kobe for an affiliate of Bayer Schering Pharma. iPierian, based in South San Francisco, acquired rights to the patent claims in 2008.

Like embryonic stem cells, iPS cells can develop into any cell type in the body, but they avoid the ethical controversies involved in using embryos. Although various international research groups have filed more than 75 patent claims involving iPS cells, the only patents awarded until now have been issued by Japan for Yamanaka's work.

Crucially, iPierian contends that Bayer had filed its key claims for the use of iPS technology in human cells months ahead of any rivals, including Yamanaka.

Akemi Nakamura, a spokesperson for Kyoto University, disagrees. "We believe we have an advantage over his claim, as the Yamanaka claim was filed prior to the Sakurada claim," Nakamura wrote in an e-mail.

First to file

Yamanaka filed his initial claim regarding iPS technology in December 2006. That application, granted in December 2008 by the Japan Patent Office, covered methods for generating both mouse and human iPS cells using four genes introduced by viral vectors. Sakurada's claim was filed in Japan in June 2007, but specifically excluded the use of c-Myc, an oncogene that research teams have been eager to eliminate from the roster of players needed to trigger reprogramming. Sakurada has yet to be issued a patent in Japan.

The relationship between Yamanaka, Sakurada and iPierian is complicated. Yamanaka was involved in the early founding of iPierian, which initially set up shop inside the Gladstone Institutes, an affiliate of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where Yamanaka works in a satellite laboratory once a month. Yamanaka has no direct stake in iPierian, but his Kyoto research laboratory collaborates with the company on efforts to refine methods of reprogramming cells — such as replacing the viral vectors used to ferry the genes that trigger the process that creates stem cells.

Sakurada briefly held the post of chief scientific officer of iZumi Bio, the company that became iPierian after it merged with Pierian — a start-up created by Harvard stem-cell researchers George Daley, Douglas Melton and Lee Rubin. Sakurada is no longer employed at iPierian, according to company spokeswoman Danielle Bertrand.

Pioneering spirit

Yamanaka could not be reached for comment about the British patent office decision. However, during a visit to the Gladstone Institutes in December, he spoke of his wish that intellectual property disputes would not slow down progress in the nascent field. "This kind of technology should not be confined to any region or country," he said.

Ken Taymor, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law, Business and the Economy in California, says that patents are pertinent only in the countries where they are issued. The UK patent may have little impact on iPS patents pending in the United States. But he acknowledged that the British decision signals that at least one major patent office is taking the Sakurada claims seriously. "These are initial steps in defining the intellectual property landscape for this important technology," he says.


The stakes in intellectual property disputes about fundamental technologies are potentially enormous. Yamanaka is reminded of it every time he visits the Gladstone laboratory. Beyond his office window stands UCSF's Genentech Hall, built in part with $50 million wrested in an out-of-court settlement from the biotech giant, which was sued by the university for infringing its patents for human growth hormone, one of Genentech's first drugs. 

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