Open letter: stem cell patent case could have far-reaching impact

Embargoed until (GMT): 
27 Apr 2011 - 6:00pm UTC

Stem cell scientists, including CRM researchers Dr Clare Blackburn and Prof Sir Ian Wilmut, have raised serious concerns about the impact of a possible ban on patents for techniques using human embryonic stem cells.

On 10th March the advocate-general of the European Court of Justice, Yves Bot, gave his opinion on a long-running legal debate about a patent filed several years ago in Germany. If the Court follows Bot’s recommendations, patenting of applications using embryonic stem cells will be prohibited on moral grounds.

Open letter in Nature
This week leaders of major stem cell projects in Europe responded to the advocate-general’s statement with the open letter below, published in the journal Nature on 28th April (Nature 472, 418; 2011). The authors, representing both embryonic and adult stem celli research, point to a potential wide-ranging impact on the entire stem cell field if the European Court chooses to uphold Bot’s opinion in a final and legally binding ruling.

Patenting
Patenting is a key step in the development of academic research findings into new medical treatments. Without the possibility of patent protection, companies are unlikely to invest in the cell manufacturing technologies needed to develop and provide innovative stem cell treatments. In their letter, the scientists state that the advocate-general’s opinion undermines years of funding from the European Commission and individual EU member states for research aimed at developing human embryonic stem cell based therapies. They suggest that citizens may find that new therapies are developed elsewhere and will not be available in Europe, or will be prohibitively expensive.

Implications
This case has implications for public perception and funding of research. If the application of embryonic stem cells to develop medical therapies is branded immoral, continued government support will be challenged. Leading stem cell scientists see that as disastrous: the first clinical trials using human embryonic stem cells are now commencing, and there is currently no suitable alternative to these cells.The consequences are likely to extend beyond those working directly with human embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cell studies inform research with other types of stem cells. Researchers fear that prohibition of embryonic stem cell patents could break up existing pan-European research collaborations and cripple the European stem cell research community.

More information
Please visit the EuroStemCell website for more information. Here you can also add comments or sign the letter if you wish to do so.