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European scientists worry that their research will instead flourish overseas

Embryonic stem cells have shown that they could eventually be very useful in the treatment of a range of currently incurable diseases such as diabetes, stroke and heart disease. But such research may be threatened, or even halted, in Europe due to a recent court decision.

Embryonic stem cells have the ability to transform into any human body tissue. For instance, earlier this year, the first eye was grown from embryonic stem cells in mice. But to grow these tissues, stem cells must be removed from a human embryo at the blastocyst stage, which destroys the embryo, and this has raised ethical questions regarding the process.

Greenpeace in Germany triggered a lawsuit saying that it is unethical to issue a patent based on stem cells from a human embryo that is destroyed afterward.

The Court of Justice, Europe's highest court, ruled in favor of the group. The ruling focused on a technique involving the conversion of human ambryonic stem cells into nerve cells.

"The use of human embryos for therapeutic or diagnostic purposes which are applied to the human embryo and are useful to it is patentable," said the European Court of Justice. "But their use for purposes of scientific research is not patentable. A process which involves removal of a stem cell from a human embryo at the blastocyst stage, entailing the destruction of that embryo, cannot be patented."

The decision has many European researchers outraged. This ruling could either halt stem cell research in Europe or send it overseas.

"This unfortunate decision by the court leaves scientists in a ridiculous position," said Professor Austin Smith of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research at the University of Cambridge. "We are funded to do research for the public good, yet prevented from taking our discoveries to the marketplace where they could be developed into new medicines. One consequence is that the benefits of our research will be reaped in America and Asia."

Source: BBC

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Here is a better summary...
By brybir on 10/19/2011 11:43:14 AM , Rating: 2
Some context from Reuters:

"Tuesday’s judgment followed a case brought in Germany by Greenpeace, challenging a patent filed by Bruestle in 1997. The ruling concerned an invention by Oliver Bruestle of the University of Bonn for converting human embryonic stem cells into nerve cells. Bruestle said he regretted the decision. A German court ruled the patent invalid, and after Bruestle appealed, Germany’s Federal Court of Justice referred questions to the ECJ. In March, Advocate General Yves Bot handed down a legal opinion, which the ECJ effectively upheld on Tuesday"

The Economist also explains:

However, Dr Brüstle’s challenger was not, as might be expected, a pro-life activist. It was Greenpeace, an environmental group, though its main objection, to what it says is the commercialisation of human life, does have a religious ring to it. The ECJ agreed, deferring to a directive that bars patents “where respect for human dignity could thereby be affected”. Any process that involves the destruction of the human embryo, the court declared, cannot be patented"

However, the Economist also notes:

The ruling has sparked immediate uproar among academics. The decision, they warn, will not just undermine basic research. It will prompt companies to funnel cash to more welcoming jurisdictions, such as South Korea, Singapore or China, or deter them from investing in the field altogether. Others are more sanguine. Alexander Denoon, a lawyer at a law firm specialising in biosciences, argues that such a decision was augured by an earlier one from the European Patent Office in 2008. He thinks that firms and scientists should be able to adjust without abandoning research completely. Besides, European researchers can still seek patents in America and other countries"

So these companies can still get patents on the techniques in America and Asia for example (they do so already), they just can't patent it in Europe. So, seems like the alarmist calls that everyone else can just copy them is not true given that these companies and scientist will still get patents in other countries.

RE: Here is a better summary...
By brybir on 10/19/2011 11:45:15 AM , Rating: 2
So to reply to my own post, this is NOT an issue akin to merely finding a gene and patenting it, but is akin to finding a gene and then developing a novel way to turn it into something else that is useful (in this case turning a stem cell into a nerve cell).

This is closer to a moral issue than some are leading on here in the comments.

RE: Here is a better summary...
By kookyMooky on 10/19/2011 12:08:20 PM , Rating: 2
If saving a life isn't motivation enough I don't think it really matters if companies make money or not. Someone will fund it.

RE: Here is a better summary...
By Starcub on 10/20/2011 2:11:09 PM , Rating: 2
Embryonic stem cell research only takes lives, it doesn't save them. The author of this article got it wrong. In fact, ESC's have proven to be remarkably useless to anyone but the embryo.

As for the opponents who claim that they can come to the US to get the patents they are being denied in the EU...

Is the USTPO going to grant patents for something that illegal in the first place? I should hope not!

"This is from the It's a science website." -- Rush Limbaugh

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