Stem cells: The cell division

Oliver Brüstle fought for more than a decade to pursue and patent human embryonic stem-cell research in Germany. Now his efforts have backfired.

Alison Abbott1
14 December 2011

After Oliver Brüstle was granted his patent, Greenpeace pushed to ‘stop the patenting of life’.

P. Langrock/Zenit/Greenpeace

It was overcast and unseasonably sultry in Luxembourg, home to the European Court of Justice, on the morning of 18 October 2011. But German neuroscientist Oliver Brüstle wasn't sweating when the 13 judges entered the court room in their flowing crimson robes. Not, that is, until they delivered their verdict, which spelt the end of his lengthy fight to defend his patent on human embryonic stem (ES) cells from attack by Greenpeace.

It took barely two minutes for the court's president to summarize aloud the four pages of the judgment. The ruling, which cannot be appealed, upheld Greenpeace's position. It declared that any patent depending even indirectly on human ES-cell lines is outlawed on moral grounds throughout the European Union (EU). Unexpectedly, it added that any research using such cell lines was similarly immoral.

For a few moments Brüstle was so shocked he could barely draw breath. Outside, the clouds burst and rain poured down. “What hurt most personally was the accusation that scientists who work on human ES-cell lines are somehow immoral,” says Brüstle, who says he never doubted that he would win the case. “But now I accept it's the end of the road".