A group of scientists have written to Nature expressing their fears that proposals to ban patent protection for embryonic stem cell lines in Europe will harm medical research and progress.
The letter follows a statement from the Advocate General of the Court of Justice of the European Communities saying that patenting of applications using human stem cells is invalid on ethical grounds since they are either derived from, or have the potential to become, human embryos (see previous news). Writing in Nature, the scientists dispute this view and warn that removing patent protection would be a serious blow to biomedical commercialization and clinical application in Europe.
EuroStemCell, a pan-European project bringing together stem cell and regenerative medicine researchers, is spearheading a campaign for signatures in support of this open latter. The International Society for Stem Cell Research has also issued a statement expressing concern that halting patent protection ‘will preclude investment in potentially life-saving treatments’.
Lawyer Julian Hitchcock, Director of CellFate and a PHG Foundation Associate, has criticised the Advocate General’s ‘failure to take account of the scientific facts’ in suggesting that a human body begins to form at the point of fertilisation (see commentary), and that the AG’s position protecting the status of fertilised human embryonic cells or cell lines is actively detrimental to humans affected by degenerative conditions, who might benefit from therapies arising from human embryonic stem cell research.
Comment: Patent protection is certainly a very important financial incentive for investment in biomedical research, which is why moves to block patenting of gene sequences have met stiff opposition (see previous news) and why researchers’ concerns over a potential ban on stem cell patenting are very valid. However, many people also hold strong ethical views about the use of embryos. Greenpeace, who initiated the original German legal case, said that they were not opposed to stem cell research but wanted ‘clarification that the industrial and commercial use of human embryos is not encouraged’.
It should perhaps be noted that the courts’ function is to examine only the relevant legal issues (and both ethical and intellectual property principles are enshrined in law), irrespective of the competing perspectives.