Hope for embryos in EU stem cell patent case

Human embryos may soon have more protection from destructive stem cell research thanks to an upcoming EU court ruling about patents.

The European Court of Justice may ban patents for any scientific techniques which are based on embryonic stem cell research because it involves the destruction of human embryos.

The move would be a blow to supporters of embryonic stem cell research. But others would welcome it, believing it is wrong to profit financially from the destruction of human embryos.


Dr Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship said: “This story is primarily not about science. It’s about money. The biotechnology companies who provide [scientists’] research grants might not be able to keep on doing so.”

The case was initiated by Greenpeace in Germany, which says it is against the patenting of human embryos and the stem cells they produce.

And others say the research creates a trade in ‘spare parts’ where one human life is sacrificed to treat another. They say ethical alternatives are available and more successful.

Supporters of the research claim it could advance medicine but are worried that, without patents, there will be little financial incentive to carry out the work. A group of scientists has written to the journal Nature to publicise their position.


The case is being considered by the European Court of Justice and an influential preliminary opinion says allowing patents for the techniques would be unethical.

The preliminary opinion was prepared by Yves Bot, one of eight Advocates-General who advise the court.

His opinion states: “I consider that an invention must be excluded from patentability, in accordance with that provision, where the application of the technical process for which the patent is filed necessitates the prior destruction of human embryos or their use as base material, even if the description of that process does not contain any reference to the use of human embryos.”


The judges are not bound to follow the advice but frequently do so. The final decision, which is expected later this year, will be binding across the EU.

Dr Doug Parr of Greenpeace said: “We oppose the patenting of life itself. It’s a dangerous line to cross to allow companies to patent embryos and the stem cells they produce.”

A spokesman for the pro-life group Comment on Reproductive Ethics said: “There are innumerable stem cell alternatives not involving the human embryo, and that is where interest and investment should be directed.”

Slow down

But Professor Ian Wilmut, cloning scientist and creator of Dolly the Sheep, says the patenting of embryonic stem cell techniques should be allowed.

He said a ban could lead to “less research done, less biotechnology, and ultimately slow down treatment for patients.”

However, Dr Peter Saunders warned: “We await the final ruling with interest. Expect much more shroud-waving, squealing, empty promises, half-truths and strident propaganda from scientists until then.”