The use of embryonic stem cells for research cannot be patented, the European Union‘s top court ruled, citing "human dignity" – and leaving people at odds over the future of the field.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) had been asked to weigh in on the matter by Germany‘s top court, which is handling an appeal by Greenpeace of a patent that calls for the use of embryonic stem cells to treat neurological illnesses such as Parkinson‘s disease.
As part of the ruling, it decided that an ovum should be considered a human embryo as soon as it is fertilized.
Greenpeace hailed its findings as groundbreaking. "Man must be protected from commercial exploitation in all phases of development. That also applies to embryos in the Petri dish," Christoph Then, an advisor to the organization, said.
He rejected suggestions that the ruling would have a significant effect on stem cell research. "Scientists in recent years have found different ways to produce adequate stem cells without destroying human embryos," Then said.
The influential German researcher whose patent is at the centre of the court case disagreed, however. "The ruling … will lead to a stigmatization of this whole branch of research," Oliver Bruestle told the news agency dpa. "This basically doesn‘t have to do with the concrete patent, but with a far-reaching signal: what you are doing is not ethical."
The use of embryonic stem cells has proven controversial in other parts of the world also, most notably the United States. Proponents say the cells, which can develop into any type of human cell, provide the potential for cures to many diseases.
Opponents say adult stem cells offer similar potential without raising ethical concerns about the destruction of human embryos. Bruestle had filed a German patent in 1997 for his method of using cells from early-stage embryos to create new nerve cells. That process involved the destruction of the embryo.
The ECJ was asked to rule on whether human embryos are unpatentable from the point of the ovum‘s fertilization or at a later stage of development under European law.
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