Scientists in Britain face being barred from developing life-saving treatments after a court ruled it is ‘immoral’ to use embryos to produce stem cells.
The European Court of Justice has decreed that patenting any treatment using the cells is ‘commercial exploitation’ and ‘contrary to morality’.
Scientists warned the ‘devastating decision’ will stop pioneering treatments for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s being developed in the UK, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the multi-million pound biotechnology industry.
But pro-life groups, who argue it is immoral to experiment with embryos to advance medicine, welcomed the ruling.
The decision, made unanimously by 13 judges in Luxembourg, 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.
Greenpeace challenged it and the case went to the highest court in Germany and then Luxembourg.
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.’
The court has ruled that patenting these processes would contradict the European law which protects human life, including embryos, on the grounds that it forms ‘commercialisation’ of human parts.
Stem cell research
However, scientists say stem cells taken from embryos in their early stages are crucial in developing life-saving treatments because they can turn into any cell type found in the body and so can be used to repair diseased and defective tissue.
Alzheimer’s, cancer, blindness, multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease are all conditions which could benefit from an injection of these healthy cells.
A trial of a stem cell treatment for blindness in young people – the first of its kind in Europe – has just begun at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, with investment from an American biotechology firm.
And Professor Peter Coffey of University College London wants to use the cells to find a cure for macular degeneration, the most common form of age-related blindness.
He said: ‘This is a devastating decision which will stop stem cell therapies use in medicine.
‘The potential to treat disabling and life threatening disease commonly using stem cells will not be realised in Europe.
‘I have just won an international prize from the New York Stem Cell Foundation for translating stem cell research into clinical practice, yet I find now that Europe, the continent in which I am doing this research, is basically calling me immoral.’
Professor Austin Smith, of Cambridge University’s Wellcome Trust for Stem Cell Research, said: ‘This unfortunate decision by the Court leaves scientists in a ridiculous position. We are funded to do research for the public good, yet prevented from taking our discoveries to the marketplace where they could be developed into new medicines.’
Professor Brüstle said after the ruling: ‘With this unfortunate decision, the fruits of years of research by European scientists will be wiped away and left to the non-European countries.
‘European researchers may conduct basic research, which is then implemented elsewhere in medical procedures which will eventually be re-imported to Europe. How do I explain this to my students?’
But pro-life campaigner Josephine Quintavalle said scientists should use other available technologies, such as adult stem cells.
She added: ‘We are a long way from a declaration on the inviolability of the human embryo but this is certainly a magnificent judgment in the right direction, and at the very least gives some added protection and respect to human life at its earliest stage.
‘It is to be hoped that this will turn the attention of scientists once and for all away from the human embryo to concentrate on the innumerable ethically sourced neonatal and adult stem cell therapies which are already available.
Embryonic stem cells are created during IVF treatment for infertile couples. Several eggs are fertilised as part of the process, but many will not be used. Currently they are either destroyed or, if the couple give their permission, donated for research.