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European Court Deals Blow to Stem Cell Research

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The battle first started when Greenpeace sued against German neurobiologist Oliver Brüstle, who had patented his method for the production of neuron precursor cells from human stem cells in 1997. The battle was taken from one authority to the next, being appealed in each round. Now Europe’s highest court has banned stem cell patents.

picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Human Embryonic Stem Cells

At first glance, this seems a reason to celebrate: While the necessity of private funding in science is obvious, patents on certain methods or cell types mean the privatization of certain lines of research, restricting the freedom of science and placing scientific progress firmly in the hands of private financial interests.

But the wording of the European Court makes it clear that this is not a victory for free science over private economic interests, but a victory of conservative values over scientific progress.

Single cells are deemed human.
The European Court has ruled that cells fall into the definition of a human embryo starting at the moment of their fertilization. The same takes effect even for unfertilized eggs that have been coaxed into proliferation by a transplantation of nuclei or other techniques.

So basically, they’ve ruled that single cells have human dignity to an extent that justifies protection by the law, and their reasoning boils down to the ever-failing argument from potential. They’ve put a gun to the head of European science, and pulled the trigger with a smile.

“the fruits of years of translational research by European scientists will be wiped away and left to the non-European countries. European researchers may conduct basic research, which is then implemented elsewhere in medical procedures, which will eventually be re-imported to Europe,”[…] said Brüstle. […]
Professor Austin Smith of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research at the University of Cambridge, agrees: “This unfortunate decision by the Court leaves scientists in a ridiculous position. We are funded to do research for the public good, yet prevented from taking our discoveries to the market place where they could be developed into new medicines. One consequence is that the benefits of our research will be reaped in America and Asia.”

(source: eurostemcell.org)

The ruling has prompted outcries from scientists and organizations all over Europe. “This is a devastating decision which will stop stem cell therapies’ use in medicine. The potential to treat disabling and life threatening disease commonly using stem cells will not be realised in Europe,” said Professor Pete Coffey of UCL, London.
Such reactions are understandable, as the decision threatens too invalidate over 100 embryonic stem cell patents in Britain and Sweden.

The legal battle over the issue is expected to continue, as the European Court’s decision is not compulsorily binding to all European nations, but a guideline and interpretation of legal issues that the high courts of individual European nations are expected to follow and implement in their respective countries’ laws.

In an interview with the austrian newspaper Der Standart (link in German), Brüstle said he sees the verdict as a stigmatization of stem cell research in general: “In the end this isn’t about my patent, but a sweeping announcement: ‘What you’re doing is not moral’.”

Written by Phil

October 24, 2011 at 12:57

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