The European Union Court of Justice will likely agree that stem cells can be patented, setting a new precedent for scientists to use this controversial method for research and development.
“This is an extremely important case with industry-wide consequences,” Dr. Simon Craw, of the International Stem Cell Corporation, the American biotech company at the center of the case.
The California-based firm applied for two patents on the technology it uses to produce stem cells but was rejected. European Union laws dictate that embryos cannot be patented on ethical grounds, because they can develop into humans.
Technically, embryos are eggs that have been fertilized with human sperm. But ISC Corp. uses chemicals to activate the cells instead, which are then called parthenotes.
EU Advocate General Pedro Cruz Villalón wrote in a Thursday opinion that since these cells cannot possibly develop into humans, they aren’t subject to the ethical laws that apply to human beings.
“It’s a great day for scientific rationale with the Judge correctly recognizing the difference between human parthenogenesis and fertilization,” Craw said.
Three years ago, the EU court ruled against patents on discoveries that involve the stem cells, saying the use of human cells in this was immoral.
But it all started in 2004 when Greenpeace challenged a patent filed by a German stem cell researcher, which described a method to turn stem cells into nerve cells.
Greenpeace said the work was “contrary to public order” because the embryos were destroyed, according to a report in the Guardian from the time.
A group of 13 scientists wrote in the journal Nature that year to express “profound concern” over the recommended ban, which “represents a blow to years of effort to derive medical applications from embryonic stem cells.”
But now, researchers like the ones at ISC Corp. hope the new decision marks a sea change in how lawmakers consider these technologies.
In the United States, the method his company uses is still banned. The Dickey-Wicker amendment, which is part of the bill that funds the National Institutes of Health, includes parthenogenesis in the definition of a human embryo. Craw said a new EU precedent could make it possible for American companies to challenge the rules here.
“We knew this day was coming, and we hoped that rational scientific argument would win the day, it appears that they have and we are ecstatic,” Craw said.