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ECJ: No patent for embryonic stem cells

ECJ: No patent for embryonic stem cells

Court prohibits patent on embryonic stem cell harvesting process

A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg has banned patents on embryonic stem cells and thus prevented the commercial use of the already controversial use of human embryos to obtain stem cells.

The destruction of human embryos violates human dignity, the European Court of Justice ruled. Environmental protection organizations such as Greenpeace and opponents of embryonic stem cell research celebrated the current verdict as a complete success. Greenpeace had massively criticized the claim for patents for embryonic stem cells in advance and warned against "industrial use of human embryos". This is now ruled out by the judgment of the European Court of Justice.

Protected embryos from the time of fertilization During the process, the advocates repeatedly emphasized the importance of embryonic stem cells for medical research and thus justified the need for suitable methods for obtaining the stem cells. For this reason, the process for the premature destruction of the embryos (before the 14th day) or their use as starting material should be able to be registered as a patent, according to the advocates of a commercial use of the embryonic stem cells. Especially since in their view human embryos before the 14th day of life do not fall under the protection of human dignity. Numerous experts were cited in court, who had stated that embryos could not be rated as expectant until the 14th day. At this stage, the cell composition is already human life, but not an individual. The European Court of Justice contradicted this view - to the delight of Greenpeace and the other opponents of the use of embryonic stem cells. The judges followed the recommendations of the French Advocate General Yves Bot, who had already assessed the blastocyst (stage of embryogenesis at about the fifth day) as a human embryo.

Human bodies exempted from patenting in all phases With the judgment of the European Court of Justice, human life to come can be seen as a “human embryo” from the stage of conception. Fertilization alone sets the process of human development in motion, French Advocate General Yves Bot said in his recommendation. The destruction of the embryos for the production of stem cells therefore violates the legally enshrined protection of human dignity, according to the judgment of the European Court of Justice. Patents for corresponding procedures cannot therefore be granted. The requirement of Greenpeace experts like Christoph Then that "the human body must be exempt from patenting in all phases of its development" is thus clearly fulfilled. The "real embryo industry that could fear developing in Europe" feared by Then is comprehensively prevented by the current judgment. With the verdict, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg also follows the position of the church, according to which the fertilized egg cell is to be assessed as a human being and should fall under the protection of human dignity.

Legal doubts about the CJEU judgment However, legal experts have difficulties with the reasoning of the court about the human dignity of the under 14 day old embryos. Because during the abortion debate in the 1970s but also in the course of the current discussions on preimplantation diagnostics, numerous experts had argued in the opposite direction. During the debate in the Bundestag on preimplantation diagnostics in July, the question was discussed as to whether parents could decide against the insertion of artificially created embryos into a woman's womb during an artificial insemination. Here, various experts explained that the embryos were not to be assessed as an expectant person until the 14th day and therefore a decision to use them did not violate human dignity. As part of the review of Section 218 of the Criminal Code, the Federal Constitutional Court declared in 1975 that "life in the sense of the historical existence of a human individual according to confirmed biological-physiological knowledge exists at least from the 14th day after conception". So the question remains whether the judgment of the European Court of Justice does not deprive itself of its reasons at this point. Especially since other legal reasons would certainly be found that prohibit the patenting of procedures for the destruction of embryos.

Alternatives to embryonic stem cells? According to Greenpeace, the legal dispute also sought to create additional economic incentives for researching ethically and morally less questionable procedures by banning patents on procedures for obtaining embryonic stem cells. As such, some doctors consider the development of so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), for example. These can be obtained, for example, by backgrowing from normal skin cells. Here, too, critics are concerned about the development that stem cell research could take. However, the concerns overall are significantly lower than for embryonic stem cells, the Bonn scientist Oliver Brüstle wanted to apply for a patent for in 1999, which triggered the legal dispute now decided by the European Court of Justice. (fp)

Also read:
Cure hereditary diseases with stem cells?
Liver disease treated with stem cells
With stem cells for strokes?
Blood disease: gene therapy with side effects
Stem cells for the treatment of eye diseases?
Stem cell therapy for spinal cord injury

Photo credit: Petra Dietz / pixelio.de

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