A test case is being heard at the European Court of Justice which could result in a EU-wide ban on patenting techniques that use human embryonic stem cells as a ‘repair kit’ for the body.
The cells taken from embryos in the first days are supposedly capable of turning into any of the cell types found in the body, but they could also become a cancerous tumor.
Despite the controversial origins, potential damages and limited “successful stories” of embryonic stem cells, the research has been invested in heavily by governments and universities in recent years.
The court case, triggered by Greenpeace, could put all European research of this kind on ice, because a preliminary ruling by the court has stated that patenting the technology would be tantamount to making industrial use of human embryos, which in turn “would be contrary to ethics and public policy”.
As a matter of fact, a legal opinion by Yves Bot, advocate-general of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, stated that no one should be allowed to patent any invention that comes out of research involving stem cells obtained from human embryos.
In his legal opinion, Mr. Bot says stem cells derived from human embryos have the ability to “evolve” into a complete human being and should therefore be legally classified as embryos. This would prohibit them from being used in patent applications.
“To make an industrial application of an invention using embryonic stem cells would amount to using human embryos as a simple base material, which would be contrary to ethics and public policy,” said a court statement.
“The advocate-general considers that an invention cannot be patentable where the application of the technical process for which the patent is filed necessitates the prior destruction of human embryos for their use as base material, even if the description of that process does not contain any reference to the use of human embryos.”
The legal opinion follows what critics of stem cell research have always say, i.e. that it is immoral to plunder an unborn baby to advance medicine – because cannot create a “spare parts trade” in which one human life is sacrificed for the good of another.
Scientists claim their research rely on vast banks of cells that have multiplied in labs for years. But a spokesman for the campaign 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.’
The 13 Grand Chamber judges of the European Court of Justice will consider M. Bot’s opinion over the coming weeks and are expected to make a final ruling on whether to ban past and future patents within six months. Few preliminary options are reversed and any ban on patents would be binding across the EU.