Ruling on stem-cell patents may spell end of research in Europe

By Steve Connor, Science Editor


Thursday, 28 April 2011

Thursday, 28 April 2011


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A fledgling biosciences industry that promises to revolutionise medicine in the 21st century could be destroyed by a French judge who has declared it immoral to patent inventions based on cells derived from human embryos.


Some of Britain's leading biomedical scientists – including Sir Ian Wilmut who cloned Dolly the sheep – have expressed their horror over a legal opinion by Yves Bot, advocate-general of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, that no one should be allowed to patent any invention that comes out of research involving stem cells obtained from human embryos. This would include potential treatments for incurable conditions ranging from heart disease and Parkinson's to blindness and spinal cord injuries.

Sir Ian and 12 other leading stem-cell researchers said the ruling – if followed by the judges of the European court – would effectively end all research on embryonic stem cells, which have the unique ability to develop into any of the dozens of cell types that make up the human body.

"Work on human embryonic stem cells is just completely undermined by this [legal] opinion," Sir Ian said yesterday. "The consequences, if it was not possible to patent these processes, is that companies would be much less likely to invest in academic research if they were not allowed to protect their inventions."

Mr Bot, a magistrate considered to be on the right of Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative party, was required by the European Court to make a ruling on a dispute that has dragged on through the German patent courts. In his legal opinion, he says that stem cells derived from human embryos have the ability to "evolve" into a complete human being and should therefore be legally classified as embryos. This would prohibit them from being used in patent applications.

"To make an industrial application of an invention using embryonic stem cells would amount to using human embryos as a simple base material, which would be contrary to ethics and public policy," said a court statement.

"The advocate-general considers that an invention cannot be patentable where the application of the technical process for which the patent is filed necessitates the prior destruction of human embryos for their use as base material, even if the description of that process does not contain any reference to the use of human embryos."

Professor Austin Smith, chair of the Welcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research at Cambridge University, said that banning patents would effectively remove the protection of intellectual property and lead to the abandonment of vital research into a host of incurable diseases.

"This opinion by the advocate-general is threatening and undermining to our research and to European research in general. Patenting is a key vehicle for the translation [of university research] to deliver new products for medicine," Professor Smith said.

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http://www.independent.co.uk/news/sc...e-2275771.html