Stem cell patents ruled illegal in Europe

by jeeg 19. October 2011 21:22

Stem-cell researchers in Europe have been left dismayed by a ruling today outlawing patents on stem cells obtained through destruction of human embryos.

Issued today by the European Court of Justice, the region's highest court, the ruling essentially declares illegal patents on stem cells extracted from any entity capable of developing into a human being, whether it's a natural embryo or one made by some other means.

The court's rationale for the decision is a passage within the European Patent Convention of 1973 banning patents "contrary to public order and morality".

It concluded today that any process resulting in the destruction of a human embryo violates this principle, and is therefore unpatentable. It says that the ban should apply even if embryos are not cited in patents, or if teams applying for patents didn't destroy the embryo themselves.

The only exception would be a case in which the patent applied for is for a treatment that would "benefit" embryos, perhaps by correcting a gene defect in an embryo that would otherwise lead to disease.

Researchers were furious with the ruling, the result of a challenge in 1999 by environmental lobby group Greenpeace to a patent on neural precursor cells obtained two years earlier by Oliver Brüstle, now at the University of Bonn in Germany.

"With this unfortunate decision, the fruits of years of translational research by European scientists will be wiped away and left to non-European countries," Brüstle said today.

"It is very much to be regretted that the court has taken this view," said Ian Wilmut of the University of Edinburgh, UK, the scientist whose team developed Dolly the cloned sheep. "This judgment may mean that initial research carried out in Europe - in some cases with European funds - will be more likely to be developed and used in other parts of the world.

"This is a devastating decision which will stop stem-cell therapies used in medicine," said Pete Coffey of University College London.

Coffey said that the ruling would not jeopardise or delay planned trials of a tiny eye patch to prevent age-related macular degeneration that he helped develop using stem cells. But he said the ruling could jeopardise other treatments. "This decision will be a major barrier to patients actually receiving these [types of] treatments," he said. "I've just won an international prize from the New York Stem Cell Foundation for translating stem-cell research into clinical practice, yet I now find that Europe, the continent in which I'm doing this research, is basically calling me immoral."

In a letter to Nature in April protesting at an earlier prior opinion from the court's advocate general, Yves Bot, Coffey and other researchers warned that a ban would drive research outside Europe and obstruct the development of treatments. They also argued strongly that it would be immoral not to allow patents that could benefit patients and relieve suffering to stand.

Andy Coghlan, New Scientist 


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