Patenting human embryonic stem cell products ruled illegal

18 October 2011

The European Court of Justice has ruled that stem cells derived from human embryos are not patentable.
The decision upholds an earlier ruling to the same effect (see previous news) on the basis that patenting any cells or cell lines derived from the destruction of human embryos would be ethically unacceptable.
However, the court did clarify that the use of human embryos for ‘therapeutic or diagnostic purposes which are applied to the human embryo and are useful to it’ were patentable, but use for scientific research was not.
As expected, European stem cell researchers have reacted angrily to this blow, saying that it will damage research into potential stem cell treatments of serious diseases and effectively drive research overseas.
Professor Oliver Brustle, of Bonn University, over whose patent the case originally arose, said: "With this unfortunate decision, the fruits of years of translational research by European scientists will be wiped away and left to the non-European countries. European researchers may conduct basic research, which is then implemented elsewhere in medical procedures, which will eventually be reimported to Europe. How do I explain this to my students?".

Comment: This case highlights the growing dilemma posed by different national and regional regulations (and ethical concerns) in a global scientific market. As there are strong arguments on either side in cases such as this, the problem is perpetuated, since countries must seek to uphold their own laws and ethical values – but at the same time seek to benefit from medical research to yield beneficial and profitable new treatments. 

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