Patent Disregard

The latest controversy to envelop stem cell research
At the end of April 2011, the European Court of Justice recommended the prohibition of patents involving human embryonic stem cells on ethical grounds. This […]

Art by Rebekah Pawley.

At the end of April 2011, the European Court of Justice recommended the prohibition of patents involving human embryonic stem cells on ethical grounds. This decision is potentially disastrous for what is by far modern science’s most controversial area of research.

Stem cells constitute the developing embryo, emerging soon after fertilisation. They differ from adult cells in two important ways. At the initial development of the embryo, its cells have no specific function but crucially have the potential to develop into any and all the cells which make up the human body. Their second unique property is the ability to divide beyond the normal limits of adult cells and so replenish damaged cells around them.

Stem cells fall into two categories: pluripotent and totipotent cells. Totipotent cells appear in the first few days after fertilisation, known as the blastocyst stage, and it is these cells which individually are capable of developing into a complete human being. Pluripotent cells on the other hand cannot develop into a complete human being, but can divide to generate many of the organs which make up the body.

It is hoped that stem cells could provide medical scientists with a powerful therapeutic tool—for example, if a patient has sustained damage to their spine, stem cells directed to grow into spinal chord tissue could be introduced to the affected area, inducing the damaged tissue to regenerate. They could provide a renewable source of human tissue, eliminating the need for unreliable organ donations. In 1998, the human embryonic stem cell (hESC) line was established; those cells capable of developing into any of the 200 tissues of the human body were isolated from blastocysts on a large scale and sold to scientists all over the world. This gave researchers the basis to develop techniques for growing more specific, functional human cell types.

Scientists working in this field quickly realised the commercial potential of their research. In 1991, Oliver Brüstle, a pioneering stem-cell researcher, took out a patent on the technique he developed to generate neural precursor cells from hESCs. He hoped these could be used to treat sufferers of Parkinson’s disease. His patent gave him exclusive rights to use of the technique for the term of the patent, which is usually 20 years.

Patenting an invention or technique is common in scientific research. It allows the inventor exclusive rights to sell his/her product and recoup the money invested, while also providing a guarantee for potential investors. However in 1999, Greenpeace challenged Brüstle’s patent on the grounds that it is contrary to public order and morality. They argued that stem cell research leads to the destruction of human embryos and thus human life, while the use of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes is contrary to European law. Despite Brüstle’s argument that the cells needed for his technique were only pluripotent and thus do not fall under the legal definition of an embryo, the Advocate General recommended that all treatments derived from hESCs were contrary to public order and morality and thus patenting them should be made illegal. This recommendation was upheld by the court in April 2011 and is almost certain to become law.

The court’s decision has caused outcry amongst much of the scientific community. Far from being immoral, stem cell researchers say it is their ethical duty to explore the treatment of disease. It is feared that, without the incentive of patents, this potentially revolutionary life-saving industry will cease to exist in Europe and investment will move to more patent-friendly countries such as the US and Japan. In a letter of protest to the journal Nature, Austin Smith, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research, together with twelve co-signatories wrote, “Scientists working in stem-cell medicine will not be able to deliver clinical benefits without the involvement of biological industry” and, “…innovative companies must have patent protection as an incentive to become active in Europe.”

Stem cell research is clearly an issue with huge ethical and philosophical implications that should be carefully regulated, but an outright ban on patents in this area could terminate an important area of research at its embryonic stage of development.



About Philip Bennet

Philip Bennett is a 2nd year Organic Chemistry DPhil student.