* Advocate General advises ban on embryonic cell patents
* Scientists say ban would "put Europe at huge disadvantage"
By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent
LONDON, April 27 Research scientists hit out on
Wednesday at a European Court of Justice (ECJ) case they say
could block development of embryonic stem cell-based therapies
The ECJ's advocate general has said all patents on embryonic
stem cell-related technologies should be banned on moral
grounds, but in a letter in the journal Nature and during a
briefing in London, leading stem cell scientists said that could
spell disaster for drug firms seeking treatments for conditions
such as blindness and spinal chord injuries.
"If the ECJ was to follow this opinion, the reality is that
all patents in Europe that relate to human embryonic stem cells
will be eliminated," said Austin Smith of the Centre for Stem
Cell Research in Cambridge, one of letter's 13 signatories.
"This will put Europe at a huge disadvantage."
Stem cell technology has proved controversial because some
cell lines are derived from embryos.
Embryonic stem cells come from human embryos that are just a
few days old and can produce any type of cell in the body.
Scientists generally harvest them from embryos left over after
in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) attempts at fertility clinics,
which would otherwise be thrown away.
Two U.S. companies -- Advanced Cell Technology ACTC.OB and
Geron (GERN.O) -- have recently won regulatory approval for
late-stage human trials of therapies using human embryonic stem
cells [ID:nN11175966] [ID:nN03138176], and many other companies
are pursuing aspects of stem cell research in Europe.
These include U.S. drugs giant Pfizer (PFE.N), the
Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca (AZN.L), Swiss drugmaker Roche
ROG.VX, the French company Cellectis (ALCLS.PA) and a small
Italian biotech called Avantea, the scientists said.
The ECJ case, on which no final judgment has yet been made,
is the last stage of a long-running legal battle about a patent
filed several years ago by scientists in Germany and challenged
by the environmental group Greenpeace.
The ECJ's advocate general for this case, Yves Bot, last
month advised that the patenting of applications using embryonic
stem cells should be banned on moral grounds.
The ECJ, Europe's highest court, upholds opinions by
advocates' general in the vast majority of cases and it is
expected to rule on this case sometime in the next few months.
Smith and his fellow signatories -- who include leading stem
cell researchers from all over Europe -- argued that patenting
is a key step in the development of new medical treatments.
Without the protection of patents, they said, drug companies
will not invest in the research or in the cell manufacturing
technologies needed to develop stem cell therapies.
"Innovative companies must have patent protection as an
incentive to become active in Europe," they wrote.
The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR)
said a move to ban patents "will preclude investment in
potentially life-saving treatments".
(Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)