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San Diego law firms ready to assist in stem cell research

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The headquarters for stem cell research may not be headed here, but San Diego is still positioned to play a major role in the development of the new technology. And the local legal community is preparing to play its part.

"I think all of San Diego was disappointed initially when we didn't get (chosen) to be the headquarters," said John Wetherell, an intellectual property attorney in the San Diego office of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. "But in reality, if you look at the numbers, I think we came out pretty good when all things are considered."

San Francisco eventually won the hotly contested battle to house the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

San Diego, however, will receive $8.7 million in stem cell research grant money, nearly a quarter of the $38.9 million awarded so far. Plus, four of the 16 institutions set to receive funding are located in San Diego.

"For me, I think it's very exciting," said Lance Kurata, a member of Fish & Richardson's corporate and securities practice group in San Diego. "To some degree, the more advanced the technology becomes in life sciences, the more it resembles science fiction. I can't begin to fathom all the possible uses for stem cells. From what I've read and heard, it takes it one step closer to some really exciting discoveries."

In preparation of the impending windfall -- and the ensuing development and commercialization -- several firms have formed specialty teams, joining partners from a wide range of practice areas to address each potential issue.

Pillsbury Winthrop has launched the Stem Cell Outlook & Planning Effort (SCOPE), an initiative to identify and capitalize on statewide and national opportunities fostered by the new focus on stem cell research.

"It's a hot area and we want to be able to show potential clients that we have the complete breadth of legal skills to work with them from founding through IPOs, acquisitions and mergers and various aspects of the health of a company," Wetherell said. "A stem cell company that wants to start basically can do one-stop shopping by contacting myself or someone else in the core initiative group."

Pillsbury's SCOPE task force includes top partners in the firm's life sciences, corporate and securities, intellectual property, litigation and even real estate practices.

It's not a new trend.

A year ago, sensing the emergence of the stem cell industry, Foley & Lardner LLP developed a similar stem cell group to handle every aspect from licensing to lobbying.

"Anything you need, we've got it covered," said Richard Warburg, an IP partner in the firm's Del Mar office. "We have people constantly monitoring what's happening in the Legislature. All of the fighting going on at the political level has had quite a significant influence."

Even firms that don't have a specific, multidimensional team assigned to handle stem cell matters are keenly aware of the new industry's implications.

Heller Ehrman LLP has approximately 100 lawyers devoted to the life sciences, cutting across the corporate, patent and licensing areas. Locally, the firm participated in San Diego's bid to land the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine by offering to provide the institute with 100 hours of free service.

"I think it's important that (companies) have access to legal accounting, regulatory consultants ... a whole panoply of experts necessary to drive those opportunities forward from conceptualization to commercialization," said Rick Kaufman, a Heller Ehrman partner with experience in intellectual property and life sciences. "I think we're well-situated."

A law firm's ability to solve any issues arising from stem cell discoveries will help with its current clients and could attract new clients. Some experts believe the climate for stem cell research in California will draw companies from other states.

"A lot of companies have come in simply because the money has been here," said Foley's Warburg.

"It remains to be seen whether the funds will be sufficient to attract existing companies to move to California in order to access those funds," Kaufman said, agreeing, however, that it will be easier for new companies to start in California.

Morrison & Foerster patent attorney Carolyn Favorito said companies will come to increasingly depend on legal advice as they develop products out of stem cell research.

"The strength of patent protection will make or break the success of stem cell companies, much like in biotech," she said. "If the goal is money, you have to put a sufficient amount of money where the patents are.

"The money that's going into the research is going to fund inventions. Those companies will be patenting that research, so it's really going to be great for San Diego patent attorneys."

The research grant funds San Diego receives also will eventually attract more venture capitalists to the area, Favorito said. According to BayBio, a Northern California life science trade association, more than 34 percent of current venture capital investments in the United States go toward the life sciences area.

Local attorneys will be prepared.

"We assume that every technology that comes out is going to need very sophisticated counseling," Fish's Kurata said. "There are some thorny, ethical issues that seem unique to stem cells, but I don't think it's any different than the ones we've been dealing with in biotech and life sciences the past 20 years."

Send your comments, thoughts or suggestions to douglas.sherwin@sddt.com

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