Europe’s top court has banned patenting any stem-cell process that involves destroying a human embryo, dealing what some scientists said was a “devastating” blow to an emerging field of medical research. Researchers fear the ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will hobble development in an area of science that could provide a range 21st-century medicines for diseases from Parkinson’s to blindness.
Stem-cell technology is controversial because some cell lines are derived from embryos. The ECJ decision now endorses widespread protection of human embryos by blocking patents. “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,” it said. Blastocyst is the stage just before implantation in the womb, when the embryo consists of around 80 to 100 cells.
Christian groups in Europe welcomed the decision. The European Centre for Law and Justice in Strasbourg said it said “protects life and human dignity” at all stages of development. The Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford called it “a triumph of ethical standards over commercial interest.”
COMECE, the commission of Catholic bishops conferences in the European Union, said the decision “provides a broad, scientific sound definition of a human embryo. Indeed, fertilization marks the beginning of the biological existence of a human being that undergoes a process of development. Therefore the human embryo, at every stage of development, must be considered a human being with potential, and not just a ‘potential human being’.”
The court said its ruling reflected European law. A European directive on biotechnology patents “intended to exclude any possibility of patentability where respect for human dignity could thereby be affected”, it said.
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.
“It means that fundamental research can take place in Europe, but that developments that follow from that cannot be implemented in Europe,” he said after the verdict. “It means European researchers can prepare these things but others will pick the fruits in the U.S. or Asia.”
Tuesday’s judgment followed a case brought in Germany by Greenpeace, challenging a patent filed by Bruestle in 1997. 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.
“We wanted a fundamental decision on how the protection of human embryos is to be laid out under EU patenting law,” said Christoph Then, a Greenpeace official, in Luxembourg. “The court has… said that ethics take priority over commercial interests.”