Landmark Ruling EU Court Strictly Limits Stem Cell Patents

The European Court of Justice on Tuesday issued a ruling which prohibits the patenting of stem cells extracted from human embroyos. The verdict could have far-reaching implications for stem cell research in Europe, with critics calling it an "unbelievable setback."

A colony of embryonic stem cells.

A colony of embryonic stem cells.

In a landmark decision released on Tuesday, the European Court of Justice ruled that stem cells extracted from human embryos cannot be patented if the embryos are destroyed in the process. The verdict could have a significant effect on the degree to which stem cell research in Europe will be used in the development of medical treatments.

The case involved a process patented by Bonn-based researcher Oliver Brüstle in 1997 whereby embryonic stem cells could be converted into nerve cells. The new cells were then used to treat neurological diseases; present day applications include the treatment of Parkinson's disease.

In its verdict, the court referred to a European Union directive which forbids the issuing of patents related to the human embryo. The court focused primarily on whether stem cells in the blastocyst stage -- when the embryo consists of just 80 to 100 cells -- fall under the EU prohibition.

"The concept of 'human embryo' must be understood in a wide sense," the court wrote in its verdict. "Accordingly, the court considers that any human ovum must, as soon as fertilized, be regarded as a 'human embryo.'"

The case against Brüstle was originally brought in Germany by Greenpeace. A German court ruled the patent invalid and, upon appeal, Germany's Federal Court of Justice referred it to the European Court.

'An Unbelievable Setback'

Greenpeace welcomed the ruling on Tuesday. "We wanted a fundamental decision on how the protection of human embryos is to be laid out under EU patenting law," Christoph Then, a Greenpeace official in Luxembourg, told Reuters. "The court has said that ethics take priority over commercial interests."

Critics, however, complain that, while the ruling does not exclude stem cell research, it prohibits researchers from benefiting from their findings. The ruling, Brüstle said, "means that fundamental research can take place in Europe, but that developments that follow from that cannot be implemented in Europe.... That is very regrettable."

The ruling could affect several pharmaceutical companies currently engaged in stem cell research and in implementing treatments -- including for strokes, heart disease, diabetes and blindness, for example -- that have developed out of that research. "Many years of intensive research are being destroyed," Brüstle said according to Reuters. "It's an unbelievable setback for biomedical stem cell research."

cgh -- with wire reports


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