Scientists to EU Court: Patents on Stem Cells Must Be Allowed

By Veronique Greenwood | April 28, 2011 10:46 am

stem cells

What’s the News: As a European court looks poised to ban the patenting of technologies using human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), a group of prominent scientists has issued a warning: regenerative medicine is never going to leave the lab if no one can make money on it.

What’s the Context:

  • Embryonic stem cells are derived from human embryos, usually donated after fertility treatments. They can develop into many different types of cells, which has raised hopes that they can be used to grow tissues for transplant,  including retinas and spinal cord tissue.
  • Generally, before a technique can be developed for use in the clinic, it must be patented—the promise of profit is what drives pharmaceutical and other biomedical companies to invest in the idea.
  • Research with hESCs has been limited in the US because until recently the government would not fund the vast majority of proposed hESC projects. Europe has fewer such restrictions, which means that it has seen a blossoming in hESC research.
  • Now, scientists are waiting with bated breath for the ruling of the highest EU court on a case that could declare patents of hESC techniques illegal. In March, an advocate-general of the court gave his opinion that they should indeed be banned, and the court usually follows advocate-generals’ advice. (For a detailed description of the case, which was brought by Greenpeace in 2004 and charges that such patents violate an EU directive prohibiting the commercial use of human embryos, see ScienceNOW’s coverage.)
  • In a public appeal published in Nature, thirteen scientists from the Wellcome Trust today argued that because hESCs are cell lines—derived from human embryos, yes, but not dependent on embryos for a supply of cells—such patents do not violate the law. They urged the court to think carefully before ruling:

    Scientists working in stem-cell medicine will not be able to deliver clinical benefits without the involvement of biological industry. [And] innovative companies must have patent protection as an incentive to become active in Europe.

  • Some EU countries agree with the distinction made by the Wellcome Trust scientists: Science reports that according to the lawyer for the defense,

    four EU member countries and the European Commission [have] submitted legal opinions that found that inventions involving already-derived hES cells should be patentable. The full court “would have a hard time completely ignoring them,” she says.

The Future Holds: The court is expected to give its ruling in the next few months.  If it does deem hESC patents illegal, it could be a major blow to the commercialization of stem cell medicine. What comes next isn’t clear, but scientists would likely have to seek companies outside the EU to keep the possibility of stem cell medicine viable.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • pheldespat

    Sure, let’s mix hESCs with patents. What could possibly go wrong?

    “Scientists working in stem-cell medicine will not be able to deliver clinical benefits without the involvement of biological industry.”

    Why would that be so?

    This is simply the industry lobbying through the scientists. We don’t need no stinking patents for hESCs! If hESCs and patents do interbreed, I’ll hold the signing scientists personally responsible for such a chimera. There are certain realms where science and scientists should not dare venture, and patenting hESCs techniques is one of them. And for the record, the problem lies with the patents, not with the hESCs being embryo-derived.

  • Matt B.

    Patent a process, fine. Patent a biological entity, no.

  • http://DiscoverMagazine Templar 7

    Pheldespat…you seem to make sense. And, that old theory of :” the only way to get funding is to have the financial assurance of a patent.” is a thing of the past, peoples. Here’s a few thoughts:

    1) It’s illegal to harvest kidneys and other organs from unsuspecting human victims, yet look at the black market involved in Organ Theft, and the selling of organs. I believe it is one of the fastest growing forms of mafia crime, if not the fastest. A patent only works if you recognize and respect the law.

    2) Look at all of the “name-brand” pharmeceuticals seeking their ways onto American Shelves, if not the whole worlds.

    3) Wake up. America already led this precident judically for the world in 2001 when The Supreme Court said that no persons can patent anything using hESC’s or the Human Genome. In law, tendencies are to follow suit.

  • Dylan

    The problem with patenting living things can be seen with Monsanto. Famously suing farms for genetically altered seeds (blowing out of monsanto trucks and are genetically superior so they are able to grow in more places than local seed) growing in their fields, putting thousands of farmers through litigation and trials. Unlawful.

  • PhDinTheProcess

    I understand and agree to a certain degree with @pheldspat, BUT there is an unfortunate truth in science, both in industry and in the “research-pure ivory tower” of academia: there is no science if there is no funding… unless maybe you are independently wealthy. Limiting the ability to patent is regrettably going to limit our ability to find funding outside of governmental entities, which, anyone in research knows, is a grab-bite-and-scratch application process. Preventing the patenting of these technologies is only going to limit the extent to which we are able to go….

  • Ed

    How about understanding intellectual monopoly better before blindly reposting nonsense?

    Try e.g. “Against Intellectual Monopoly” by Levine and Boldrin.

  • ihatrq baier

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