A European Victory for Ethical Stem Cell Research

By Wesley J. Smith

Editor’s note. We’ve written twice about a very important ruling by the European Union’s highest court that scientists can’t patent stem cells if they are obtained by destroying human embryos.  As is often the case, Wesley Smith adds additional important insights, some of which we share here from a column that appears at www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2011/11/a-european-victory-for-ethical-stem-cell-research

…Life isn’t that simple. To be sure, ESCR (embryonic stem cell research)  scientists do want to find efficacious treatments. But ESCR scientists also want to get rich–which is why academics often create start-up biotech companies or partner with industry before publishing their experimental findings. But in order to hit the financial jackpot, researchers and biotech companies need patent protection for the processes and products they develop in the lab. Otherwise, they could invest millions, and years of effort for the research, only to have someone else copy and market the product without risking a plug nickel.

And therein lies a very big rub. Almost from the day human embryonic stem cells were derived, legal fights have erupted over patent rights. Indeed, even as the media railed against Bush for supposedly holding back the ES ell sector, some within the science community quietly acknowledged that patent disputes constitute the real threat to the commercial viability of embryonic stem cell-industry, even if the over-hyped promise of cures ever proves medically efficacious.

The latest front in the ESCR patent wars manifested itself in Europe recently after the European Union’s highest court ruled that embryonic stem cells and products derived from are not patentable under applicable EU law. 

There are a couple of interesting twists to this case. First, …the case in question–which challenged a German biotech company’s legal right to patent progenitor (a form of adult) stem cells, made from ES cells for potential use in treating Parkinson’s disease-wasn’t brought by the Catholic Church or political conservatives. Greenpeace filed the lawsuit. Yes, that Greenpeace.

Second, the court ruling interpreted a European law that forbids nations within the EU from issuing patents that involve “uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes,” as “contrary to ordre public or morality.” The case reached Europe’s high court because the German judges wanted an interpretation defining the human embryo for the purposes of European patent law, and also wanted to know whether the ban on patenting “industrial applications” of products derived from embryo destruction extended to scientific research.

The court ruling constituted a complete victory for opponents of human ESCR and cloning research. …

Venture capitalists now may be unlikely to put significant money into the development of ES cell-derived products that cannot be protected from copying or imitating. The same goes for human cloning research since the ruling explicitly included somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). The ruling also boosts normal adult stem cell research and induced pluripotent stem cell experiments-in which a skin cell can be reprogrammed into a stem cell-because they and products derived from these sources can be patented in Europe. American companies are not affected directly by the ruling. But they could still be materially impacted if they seek to sell their ESC-derivedproducts in countries where the ruling applies.

The ruling conveys the same implicit moral message President Bush delivered when he restricted federal funding of ESCR: Human embryos are not chopped liver. As nascent human beings, they matter morally. Companies that use human life as a mere corn crop should not be rewarded financially for the act of destroying human life.