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BLOG biotech : Nov 22, 2011

Europe Sends Wrong Message on Patenting Research on hESCs

  • John Sterling
In response to GEN’s recent online poll that asked: “Do you agree with the decision from the Court of Justice of the European Union to ban patents on research based on the destruction of embryos?” our website visitors replied as follows: 60.4% disagreed; 34% agreed; and the remaining 5.6% were undecided.

As described in a legal column by Philippa Montgomerie, Grant Strachan, Aaron Fountain, and Lisa Haile, which will appear in the upcoming December issue of GEN, “On October 18, 2011, The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) published its decision in Brüstle v. Greenpeace. The Court ruled that processes that involve the derivation of stem cells from a human embryo at the blastocyst stage, entailing the destruction  of that embryo, cannot be patented.”

This was bad news on a number of levels, which is why our poll results do not surprise me. Scientific work on hESCs will certainly continue, but the court’s decision will definitely cast a pall on this extremely promising area of study. Many biotech companies will now probably think twice before carrying out costly basic research on hESCs or, for that matter, on any other type of biological material unless they believe they can recoup their investment and make a profit on any resultant products.

And what about the millions of people who fervently hope that stem cell therapies will one day either relieve their suffering or cure them of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other disorders? The ruling will definitely do much to burst their bubble of hope.

Indeed, stem cell research was and remains a controversial topic for many. Geron just closed down its own stem cell program partly as a result of problems in obtaining financing due to its practice of using cells that were obtained from destroyed embryos.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the religious and moral objections to stem cell research that many people hold need to be respected. But at some point and because stem cell research offers the real possibility of treating a large number of currently recalcitrant diseases, balancing the therapeutic pros against religious or moral cons must be paramount. Logic needs to rule because so many people’s lives and well-being are at stake.

The blastocyst contains 70–100 cells. There are individuals who believe this a living person. But not the people in Mississippi, one of the most conservative of the 50 United States. Two weeks ago Mississippians voted down a ballot initiative that sought to consider a fertilized human egg a legal person.

Utlimately, it all comes down to the idea of whether or not you think the state of humanness begins at conception. I also have the feeling that embryo is a more loaded word than if you use the term blastocyst. To me, embryo seems closer to the idea of a fetus which is a developing human being that can clearly be seen. But for a good many people, I am not all that convinced that if they were armed with all the necessary biological information about a 70–100 cell blastocyst they would call this a human.

A personal note: I admit I am biased, quite so in fact, in favor of stem cell research and patenting stem cell lines that result from this work. I feel this way not only as a trained biologist but also as a brother, son, and husband. My sister was born with cerebral palsy; my mother suffered a series of mini-strokes, wound up with multi-infarct dementia, and had to live in a nursing home toward the end of her life; and my wife is dealing with progressive multiple sclerosis.

All these people were (in the case of my deceased mother and sister) or are (my wife) living, breathing, thinking, feeling, functioning, and complete human beings. If a cure had been or becomes available to alleviate the pain and suffering associated with diseases such as these and that cure came from a small ball of cells, how could I act otherwise than to stand up and serve as a strong advocate for stem cell therapy?