Blogging with Parkinson's

A personal perspective on Young Onset Parkinson's

Stem Cell Controversy in Europe; Australians may have a solution


Drawn (very quickly) in Corel DrawWith the advent of President Obama (and his liberal views on stem cell technology) in America, it seemed that the future of stem cell research was looking up. But now a European court ruling has put such research at risk.

A report in the UK’s Daily Mail (a paper not usually noted for its science coverage) states that the 13 judges in Luxembourg decided “unanimously” that the exploitation of human embryos for commercial profit was “contrary to morality”.

The Mail reports that:

The decision […] follows a case brought by Greenpeace in Germany against Professor Oliver Brüstle at the University of Bonn.

Professor Brüstle filed a patent with the German government in 1997 to convert embryonic stem cells into nerve cells to help patients with Parkinson’s disease.

The resulting 10-page judgement prohibits patenting any process which involves removing a stem cell from and then destroying a ‘human embryo’ – defined as anything ‘capable of commencing the process of development of a human being.’

It states: ‘Patents may not be granted for inventions whose commercial exploitation would be contrary to morality… In particular patents shall not be awarded for uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purpose.’

So, scientists can, technically, perform research on embryonic stem cells, but neither they nor the pharmaceutical companies who fund such research can patent any resulting methodology, drugs or therapies. This effectively means that the funding for such research may disappear. It also seems to imply that therapies based on embryonic stem cells cannot be patented in Europe, and so Europeans will not benefit from any such therapies.

Stem cell technology is vaunted as potentially beneficial for many conditions, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, blindness, multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease. It is based on the idea that the stem cell is the “blank canvas” of the cellular world and can, potentially, grow into any other type of cell. It seems that the best (but not only) supply of stem cells is derived from the very early stages of an embryo. Stem cells are species-specific, so in order to treat humans, you would need human stem cells. Embryonic stem cells used in research and, one imagines, any putative therapies, come from “waste” embryos created during IVF treatment. These excess embryos would otherwise be destroyed.

In other news today, The Times of India reports that an Australian researcher (Foteini Hassiotou from the University of Western Australia) has discovered that stem cells can be sourced from breast milk. Hassiotou is quoted as saying,

“The benefit of obtaining stem cells from breast milk is that they can be accessed non invasively, unlike getting them from the bone marrow, umbilical cord blood or peripheral blood.”

The Times of India journalist probably didn’t think it necessary to include the observation that it was also considerably less controversial than using embryonic stem cells.

Edit: The same story is also reported, in more detail, in The Sydney Morning Herald.

I understand that, while stem cells have been extracted from a variety of non-embryonic sources in the past, this extraction process is difficult and the resultant stem cells are not always as useful as the ones that have been extracted from embryos (it may be that they are a little further developed).


4 thoughts on “Stem Cell Controversy in Europe; Australians may have a solution

  1. I saw this on the news last night – not sure that the drugs part is right. Patents cannot be based on parts of the genome (which seems sensible to me) but there was no implication that drugs that designed to work on the genome’s expressed chemicals wouldn’t be patentable. Where did you get that bit from?

    There’s a bit in law that states that discoveries are not patentable, only inventions. I think the idea behind this ruling is that reading the genome is discovery, but I would have thought that creating a new drug to interact with it was invention, and thus patentable.

  2. I inferred “that bit” from the article, I’m afraid. It may well be that nobody is intending that a drug would be the end result of this research; in fact, I’m pretty certain that stem cell therapy is not usually drug-based.

    Thank you for pointing that out.

    However, the fact remains that this ruling is in addition to the discovery/invention thing, and it objects to any commercial benefit that might be gained from exploiting human embryos, including any drug, however likely that may be. I believe that methodologies are patentable, but I am not sure.

    This is what happens when I rush a post. Ordinarily, I would have sought out other references (such as The Guardian’s take, or even the New Scientist), but that probably wouldn’t have changed what I wrote.

  3. The bit about morality is nuts, but the result is correct imho. I don’t think the first person who works out how some part of the genome affects us should be allowed to patent the discovery. For starters, pretty much all of the proteins expressed have more than one function (with the possible exception of the hox set).

    Methods for affecting a person’s genome will still be patentable, but (I think) not the gene therapy itself. This makes sense to me – the genome isn’t something created, it is a machine that we are working out how to hack.

    Food for thought: If the reverse decision had been made, we might well find that some team ‘invents’ a fix for a problem, but that the NHS can’t afford it!

  4. Pingback: Sacramento area science wunderkind gets national recognition – Sacramento Bee | Stem Cell Articles

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