With 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).