28th May 2022

Top EU court bans stem cell patents

The European Court of Justice on Tuesday (18 October) banned patents on stem cells extracted from human embryos that are then discarded, a ruling with wide-reaching implications for medical research in Europe.

In accordance with EU law, patents have to be excluded from any areas "where respect for human dignity could be affected," the court said in its verdict. The use of human embryo cells can only be for "therapeutic or diagnostic purposes" applied to the embryo itself, but "not for scientific purposes."

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  • Stem cells cannot be used if the embryo is killed (Photo: BWJones)

"A process which involves removal of a stem cell from a human embryo ... entailing the destruction of that embryo, cannot be patented," the ruling reads.

The case was brought by German scientist Oliver Bruestle, who in 1997 patented a method of using stem cells from human embryos to treat patients with Parkinson's disease. His patent was challenged by Greenpeace in German courts, which in turn asked for legal advice from the EU's top court.

"This unfortunate ruling wipes out years of transnational research by European researchers in one fell swoop," said Bruestle, a professor at Bonn University. He said the old continent will fall behind other parts of the world where such practices are not restricted.

Religious groups, such as the commission of European bishops (Comece), welcomed the verdict as a "milestone in the protection of human life in EU legislation." The organisation said EU science research should focus on adult stem cells or cells from umbilical cord blood.

"These methods enjoy wide acceptance both on scientific and ethical grounds," the bishops said.

Greenpeace also welcomed the decision, noting that it will prevent biotech companies from turning a profit from human life.

“By blocking the patenting and commercialization of human embryos the European Court of Justice has today strengthened the protection of human life against commercial interests within the EU", said Lasse Bruun, a Greenpeace campaigner on the issue.

The EU patent office had stopped granting patents on human embryo cells in 2006, but national patent offices did not change their practice. This will have to change following the ECJ ruling.

Bruun noted, however, that "the decision will affect stem cell research only partially, as in recent years, researchers have found several alternative methods for obtaining stem cells, without the need to destroy human embryos."

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