August 25, 1997
Media Contact: Gary Stephenson
Pediatric cancer physician and scientist Curt Civin, M.D., didn't choose to become the central figure in a landmark patent dispute that would end up in federal court, involve many members of Congress and result in a first-of-its-kind decision from the National Institutes of Health. He just happened to become a victim of his own success.
The story started back in 1981. Civin was busy seeking a way to separate and use stem cells -- cells that gives rise to all other blood cells -- to help his young cancer patients. Most researchers had given up on this quest as impossibly difficult. But Civin knew the importance of trying. If these cells could be isolated, purified and given back to patients after they received cancer fighting drugs, their chances of survival could be enhanced.
Despite the odds against him, he discovered a natural magnet for stem cells, attracting and separating them from the other cells.
Ironically, this discovery -- made to help patients survive the fight of their lives -- ended up embroiling Civin in the fight of his. His discovery quickly caught the attention of cancer researchers and physicians around the world. It also caught the attention of entrepreneurs. And this is where the story takes an unpleasant turn.
Recognizing Civin's discovery as a potential gold mine, a Seattle-based firm called CellPro infringed Johns Hopkins' patents on Civin's discovery and began marketing its own stem cell separation technology. Six years later, a federal court ruled that CellPro had willfully infringed the patents and leveled fines of almost $7 million against the company. At nearly the same time, the National Institutes of Health, resisting a public and media relations campaign orchestrated and financed by CellPro, denied the firm's request for a compulsory license to the technology in the name of "public health."
But lost in the national and international media coverage of the legal battle, the intense lobbying, the PR war and the NIH decision is the story of the scientist and healer who made the discovery--and continues to use his discovery to help young patients. If you would like to interview Civin or some of his patients, call me at 410-955-5384.