Stem cell therapy may be the hope for the future of treating debilitating diseases and brain stem and spinal cord injuries, but it’s never been without controversy due to the fact that the embryonic stem cells most useful in treatment are removed from human embryos about five days after fertilization, destroying the embryos in the process. On Oct. 18, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) delivered a blow to stem cell researchers and the institutions that fund them with its ruling in Oliver Brüstle v. Greenpeace e.V., which will block patents in the EU on stem cells derived from human embryos.
Some people believe the case’s effect may be blunted by new developments in stem cell research that may someday eliminate the need for human embryonic stem cells. Nonetheless, stem cell researchers in particular are concerned about the ruling’s impact on the advancement of science and investment in the field now that EU patent protection is no longer a possibility.
In 1997 Brüstle filed for a German patent relating to a process to convert human embryonic stem cells to neural precursor cells, which had shown promise for treating numerous neurological diseases. Scientists had already developed clinical applications for them; it was thought that Parkinson’s disease, in particular, would respond well to such therapy, and today it is still used as an experimental treatment of the disease.
John Wilkinson, a partner at Reed Smith in London, says that patent applicants may try new ways of drafting their patent applications to avoid the effects of the ruling.
But the possibility exists that some companies, worried about competition, may stop publishing their findings. “Society loses because the information isn’t as available as possible,” Wilkinson says. “European society could also lose because a company may only market its stem cell-based product or therapy in countries where it has some realistic patent protection.”