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Stem cell patent ruling is a triumph of ethics over commercial expedience and will open fruitful new areas of research

by | Oct 20, 2011

By Dr. Peter Saunders

British scientists are kicking up an enormous stink about Tuesday’s court ruling that scientists can’t patent stem cells if they are obtained by destroying human embryos.

Europe’s highest human rights court, the EU Court of Justice, said the use of human embryos ‘for therapeutic or diagnostic purposes which are applied to the human embryo and are useful to it is patentable. But their use for purposes of scientific research is not patentable.’

The EU judges were asked by the German Federal Court of Justice to provide a ruling in a case regarding a German scientist, Oliver Bruestle, whose patent on a method to create nerve cells from human embryonic stem cells was ruled invalid. The court said ‘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 ruling mentions ‘respect for human dignity’.

The full implications of the judgment are explained in more detail on LifeSite news.

The British media is somewhat predictably filled with reports of scientists condemning the judgment.

A leading article in the Independent calls it ‘A patently poor ruling on stem cells’ and a lengthier piece in the same paper says that ‘medicine has been thrown into crisis’.

The Daily Mail leads with the headline ‘Stem cell research in chaos as scientist loses patent battle over extracting cells from human embryos’ and the Times with ‘Europe’s ban on stem-cell patents threat to UK medicine industry’

The BBC declares ‘European court ruling “threatens stem cell work”’.

Most broadcast coverage has been mind-numbingly superficial.

The above articles consist largely of a series of quotes from scientists making the kinds of statements that scientists never used to make:

We are told that Europe is now facing ‘a Dark Age of stem cell research’; that this is ‘an unbelievable setback’; that ‘Many years of intensive research are being destroyed’; that the decision will ‘will hold back research into new treatments for blindness, paralysis and Parkinson’s disease’; that it is a ‘devastating decision which will stop stem cell therapies use in medicine’ and that ‘emerging regenerative medicine industry that the Government has placed at the heart of its plans for economic recovery could be wrecked’. …

There is virtually nothing in any of these articles about the new advances in ethically uncontroversial non-embryonic stem cell therapy being made all over the world.

The British media coverage tells us much more about the state of science journalism in Britain than it does about the actual scientific facts. But we have now reached a point where most science journalists in this country writing on this issue simply mindlessly recycle press releases from the biotechnology industry or prepackaged ‘briefings’ and soundbites from the Science Media Centre.

Those who wish to know more about the actual facts will need to take their reading off shore.

The truth is that UK scientists have overhyped embryonic stem cells to a gullible public and parliament for over ten years with very little to show for it in terms of any promise of therapeutic advance. I have urged caution about their conclusions before.

I have blogged about this issue ad nauseam and won’t repeat the arguments here but refer readers to my past blogs on spinal cord injury, cord blood, three parent embryos and adult stem cells where they are outlined in some detail.

If you follow the links in these blogs you will be able to access information about the science in this whole arena which you may never learn from the BBC or the press releases of British scientists whose salaries are paid by the biotechnology industry.

The case before the court was originally begun by Greenpeace in Germany.

An adviser to Greenpeace, Dr. Christoph Then, said in bringing the case that the organisation was not opposed to all stem cell research: ‘We do not think the opinion of the Advocate General is so clear. Our original purpose was to clarify the patent law, especially around the industrial use of embryos.’

It is the commercial exploitation of human life that bothers them. It bothers me too. And I think it would bother thousands more people too if they were able to learn the truth.

Dr. Then said after the ruling: ‘We wanted a fundamental decision on how the protection of human embryos is to be laid out under EU patenting law. The court has said that ethics take priority over commercial interests.’

The Anscombe Bioethics centre has welcomed the ruling as a ‘triumph of ethical standards over commercial interest’.

The ruling does not stop embryo research but it could well take the wind out of the European biotechnology industry’s sails by making it no longer economically viable to fund embryonic stem cell research.

That would mean less money wasted on blind alley research by people with financial and ideological vested interests and more being invested where it is really needed for the good of all – in adult stem cell and induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS) technology.

In an opinion column in the French medical daily Le Quotidien du Médecin, Prof Claude Huriet commented earlier this year: ‘While innovations in the field of the life sciences arouse ethical reactions often regarded as obstacles to innovation, it sometimes happens that these ethical objections stimulate the imagination of researchers and finally lead to progress! Who could quarrel with that?’

This court ruling may actually prove to be the best thing that ever happened to stem cell research in Europe by closing ‘a road to nowhere’ and opening a new highway to research that is both ethical and fruitful.

Editor’s note. Dr Peter Saunders is a former general surgeon and CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship, a UK-based organization with 4,500 UK doctors and 1,000 medical students as members. This appears on his blog at: