Patent protection for stem-cell research methods that involve cells from human embryos is not possible under European Union law, the region’s highest court said.
Inventions based on the use of human embryonic stem cells for scientific research purposes can’t be patented, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg 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,” said the EU court. The blastocyst stage is about five days after fertilization.
Under an EU law from 1998, research methods that involve human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes can’t be patented. A German court handling the dispute at the center of today’s case sought the EU tribunal’s view on how to interpret this phrase and the term “human embryo.”
The case was triggered when Greenpeace challenged a German patent awarded to Oliver Bruestle, a professor and specialist in stem-cell research.
“This is an unbelievable setback for bio-medical research in the area of stem cells,” Bruestle said in an interview after the ruling. The EU court “took an extreme position on restrictions in this area, which will have huge repercussions globally, especially in the competition with the U.S. and Asia, and in scientific research.”
Greenpeace, which said it sued for “ethical reasons,” argued the patent for a stem-cell research process developed by Bruestle to treat neural diseases is invalid because it covers cells derived from human embryos. The Federal Court of Justice, Germany’s highest civil court, last year asked the EU tribunal for guidance on the case.
“We wanted a fundamental decision about the protection of embryos under European patent law and we got that clarity today,” said Christoph Then, a spokesman for Greenpeace. “Commercial interests have to take a backseat and integrity has to take over.”
The case is: C-34/10, Prof. Dr. Oliver Bruestle v. Greenpeace e.V.
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