LONDON (AP) — The European Union’s top court ruled Tuesday that scientists cannot patent stem cell techniques that use human embryos for research purposes, a ruling some scientists said threatens important research since no one could profit from it.
The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg said the law protects human embryos from any use that could undermine human dignity.
Embryonic stem cells can develop into any type of cell in the body, which one day might be used to replace damaged tissue from ailments such as heart disease, Parkinson’s and stroke. But using stem cells from embryos has been controversial — opposed by some groups for religious and moral reasons.
Despite such concerns, there are no such restrictions on obtaining patents on stem cell techniques in the U.S. and many other countries.
The European ruling centered on the case of Oliver Bruestle at the University of Bonn, who filed a patent on a technique to turn embryonic stem cells into nerve cells in 1997. Greenpeace filed a challenge to Bruestle’s patent, arguing that it allows human embryos to be exploited.
The court said patents would be allowed if they involved therapeutic or diagnostic techniques that are useful to the embryo itself, like correcting defects.
But the court objected to any stem cell techniques used exclusively to further research, and wrote that using embryos “for purposes of scientific research is not patentable.”
Scientists worried the decision could further restrict stem cell research. Many denounced the decision and said researchers and companies would be less interested in pursuing costly stem cell research because they would be unable to protect their inventions.
“This is a devastating decision which will stop stem cell therapies’ use in medicine,” Pete Coffey, a stem cell researcher at University College London, said in a statement. “The potential to treat disabling and life-threatening diseases using stem cells will not be realized in Europe.”
Others welcomed the court’s ruling.
“We are in favour of research and development in biotechnology, but human beings must not be destroyed, not even in the early stages of their development”, said Peter Liese, of the EPP Christian Democrat group at the European Parliament.
The German Bishops’ Conference, part of the Catholic Church, said it welcomed the ruling, calling it a “victory for human dignity,” and said it strengthened its view that a human being begins life at the moment of conception.
Alexander Denoon, a lawyer at a U.K. law firm specializing in life sciences, said patent attorneys would likely find ways around the European ban and try to patent the discoveries that result from the stem cell techniques rather than the techniques themselves.
Stem cell research using embryos has been somewhat overshadowed in recent years by a new method first reported in 2007 that reprograms cells to turn into stem cells. No embryos are used, and many researchers are now working on fine-tuning that method.
Still, many scientists contend there is still value in experimenting with stem cells that can be developed from embryos and that researchers need that option.
Associated Press Writers Raf Casert in Brussels and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.