Legal disputes over adult and embryonic stem cell research

11 July 2010

A report from the European Science Foundation (ESF) released last month examines key issues in human stem cell research and regenerative medicine, which it hails as having the promise to be ‘one of the most fascinating and controversial scientific developments of the 21st century’ (see press release). Regulation of stem cell research varies widely between different European countries: some prohibit human embryonic stem (HES) cell research; seven permit the production of human stem cells from spare in vitro fertilisation (IVF) embryos; three (the UK, Belgium and Sweden) allow the creation of embryos purely for research, albeit under strict regulation; and six have no legislative policies at all.

The report highlights the complex situation for patenting HES cell technologies in Europe due to reported ambiguities in ethical guidelines within the European Patent Convention. For example, whether therapeutic applications of stem cells would be considered commercial; and whether inventions involving the destruction of a human embryo at the early blastocyst stage of development are prohibited as those involving the destruction of older embryos are.
Another key major assertion of the report is that HES cell lines may not receive as much funding or scientific scrutiny as those derived from adult pluripotent stem cells, since the latter are easier to produce and do not involve ethical objections to the use of human embryos. The report calls for increased and equitable national and EU funding for human embryonic stem cell research, noting that the two types of cells are not identical and that HES cells may offer safety benefits if used for therapeutic applications.
Interestingly, the opposing issue has arisen in the US, where the Court of Appeals in Washington DC has granted permission for two adult stem cell researchers to file a lawsuit against the National Institutes of Health on the basis that the new Federal government support for embryonic stem cell research (see previous news) is diverting funding away from their own parallel – and some would argue, ethically superior - field of research [Nature (2010) 466: 159; doi:10.1038/466159a].
The ESF report is spot on with the assessment that this field is fascinating and controversial; whether more countries will move towards common ground on this issue, or adopt increasingly polarised approaches is interesting to contemplate. In purely scientific terms, it is certainly more appropriate to pursue both lines of research simultaneously – but what will the majority view be in terms of ethical acceptability?