Companies and universities are patenting stem cell discoveries at a frenetic pace in spite of public controversies and legal and regulatory difficulties, according to a study published on Monday at the world's biggest biotechnology conference.

The report by Marks & Clerk, the London-based firm of patent attorneys, shows that more than 3,000 patents related to stem cells have been filed worldwide in the past five years. The rate of filing has doubled during the period with the US, Japan, Australia and UK topping the league table. “The message seems to be simple: biotech companies are undeterred by the hostile research environment that currently governs the stem cell sector,” said Claire Irvine, co-author of the report.

“The industry is clearly taking the view that countries will adopt a more liberal approach once the potential contribution that stem cell research can have in furthering the cause of medical science is more widely understood.”

Political restrictions on stem cell research will be high on the agenda of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation meeting. The biggest domestic issue is whether the US Congress can expand federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research in the face of a threatened veto by George W. Bush, US president.

As well as universities, several multinational drug companies appear on Marks & Clerk's list. Bayer, Novo Nordisk, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Roche are in the top 10; each has filed between 30 and 40 families of stem cell patents since 2000.

■ Scientists at Sheffield University in the UK will tell the European Society of Human Reproduction meeting in Copenhagen on Monday that human embryonic stem cells can develop in the laboratory into early forms of cells that eventually become eggs or sperm.

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