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Stem cell patent row

Fergus Walsh | 18:00 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Who is Yves Bot and why does he have the stem cell community in Europe up in arms? One of eight Advocates-General, he is there to provide impartial advice to the European Court of Justice. Last month he issued a complex opinion on patent law regarding embryonic stem cell research. You can read his opinion here.

The Advocate General appears to argue that it is unethical to allow patents to be derived from research involving human embryonic stem cells. Here is a very brief extract from his opinion:

"I consider that an invention must be excluded from patentability, in accordance with that provision, where the application of the technical process for which the patent is filed necessitates the prior destruction of human embryos or their use as base material, even if the description of that process does not contain any reference to the use of human embryos."

The prospect of a ban on patents in this area has many scientists deeply worried. The International Society for Stem Cell Research said the Advocate General's view may "impede the development of new therapies".

There are thousands of scientists working on stem cells around Europe. In order for potential breakthroughs to be taken from the discovery stage and translated into new treatments, they need a huge amount of resources. This inevitably involves partnership with industry. Patents are important because they allow the pharmaceutical industry to protect their investments.

13 stem cell scientists have written to Nature expressing "profound concern" at the Advocate-General's opinion. At the Science Media Centre this morning, several of them gathered spoke of their shock and astonishment at Mr Bot's legal opinion and said it threatened to wipe out the bio-industry in Europe. The group included "Dolly the Sheep" creator Sir Ian Wilmut and Professor Pete Coffey who is in the final stages of planning the first UK trial of human embryonic stem cells as a potential treatment for blindness.

The scientists argued that the removal of patent protection would have a major impact on the UK economy. Professor Austin Smith, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge said it would have a profound effect on this emerging area of technology.

It was a surprise to hear that it was Greenpeace in Germany which began the court action which led to Mr Bot's opinion. A spokesman told me that the organisation was not opposed to all stem cell research and also said that the opinion of the Advocate General was not clear cut.

The European Court is expected to make a final ruling in a couple of months.


  • Comment number 1.

    EHSI an otc company has trained their staff to use a stem-cell growing machine leased from NASA that makes 3-d stem cells taken from the patient (thus not embryonic) that are more active in growing various types of tissue and tissue repair. EHSI is currently seeking new applications for their unique 3-D stem cells.

  • Comment number 2.

    You can read the full text of the scientists' letter, and, if you wish, add your signature in support of the letter, at

  • Comment number 3.

    Although I am no expert in this area I see this as not being a problem . I notice that the most promising and availible treatments use the patients own stem cells .

  • Comment number 4.

    Clever guy! If you can't actually prevent research of questionable morality from being done, at least make it unprofitable!

  • Comment number 5.

    "Who is Yves Bot and why does he have the stem cell community in Europe up in arms? "
    I don't know who he is but I'd like to sign a letter thanking him. Is there a link out there to show him support?

  • Comment number 6.

    hmmm no i think we need to understand our genome from the start of life to the end of life.
    although i do think we should start to look more at adult stem cells from the CNS and bone marrow were most of our stem cells are produced.
    I do however think the cross over into public treatment with embryonic stem cells should be limited if not stopped. Work to understand the difference in manipulation and growth etc between embryonic and adult stem cells and then stop using them.

  • Comment number 7.

    I agree with mscracker. I would like to thank Mr. Bot for raising the ethical and moral concerns surrounding embryonic stem cell research and the therapies which will emerge from them, and for advising against allowing patents for the processes. I'm very surprised that someone in his position would have both that stance, and the courage to defend that stance in the face of what is surely great opposition in the environment in which he works.

  • Comment number 8.

    This article (like most BBC coverage on this issue) doesn't really make clear the distinction between embryonic and adult stem cells - there are currently only 2 phase one clinical trials anywhere in the world involving the former but thousands using the latter.

    Nor does it deal in any detail with the European legal precedent based on which Bot has made his judgement. This is a legal decision primarily, not an ethical one.

    This whole story is much more about money and research grants than it is about science. It would be good to see the BBC writing a balanced piece on the relative merits of embryonic and adult stem cells (let alone umblical stem cells or IPs) but I am not holding my breath.

    See for an alternative view.

  • Comment number 9.

    Very interesting views being out forward here. I cant say I share all of them. It seems that peoples views on stem cells seem to be strongly linked to spiritual ideologies and are backing Mr Bot's stance here because it coincides with their ideology.

    Now I think we should be moving away from laws that have their basis in ideological arguments or faith based approaches as they are ultimately conjecture at best and superstitious and malignant at worst.

    However the use of embryos as a stem cell source does seem to be compatible with EU laws (especially in the UK). It seems to be a hypercritical stance for a country to legally allow social abortions of much older and more developed human multicellular beings and yet to ban the use of embryo cells (which may or may not destroy their life giving potential) for medical research purposes.

    Morality is a very complex issue and one that for me cannot be explained from morally questionable scriptures giving fixed doctrines.

  • Comment number 10.

    A crazy situation, he's proposing that Europe stops all research and in future buys the results from other countries, or does he want to ban that too?

  • Comment number 11.

    Stem cell 'patent' row. 'Patent', rather than 'patient' is the key to this issue?

    All new medicines are registered to be protected by patent laws for a specific period of time?

    However, this debate appears more complex. As precise as Fergus Walsh is, I think Fergus needs to chase this issue much further in order to obviate a religious, or unnamed pharma company block in Europe for stem cell medical availability that may affect their current (under patent) medications?

    In the UK - stem cell research has led the way in bio science for decades - it does seem curious that this has been 'unwelcome' in Europe? It reads and sounds wrong - so something wrong is going on behind the scenes, don't you think Fergus Walsh?

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    This whole thing is crazy, stem cell research is the biggest breakthrough in sience at the moment, people need to stop all this madness, its all down to pro life and the catholic church.They need to realise how important stem cell research is. anybody who is trying to fight stem cell research seriously needs to grow up, very quickly.

  • Comment number 14.

    "... social abortions of much older and more developed human multicellular beings".

    I think it is clear from the language of Mr. Standing that he does in fact give selective support to some ideologies, even if he thinks it acceptable to attack 'superstitious' religious creeds. I have only ever heard fundamentalist supporters of the abortion ideology couch their arguments in such cold and depersonalising language.

    I think I will keep to my backward 'spiritual ideology' thank you, and its belief in babies rather than 'more developed human multicellular beings'.

    God help us if people like you start writing human research policies.

  • Comment number 15.

    Just quick look into corporate pharmaceutical balance sheets will tell us what is their real concern and interest. Public health and well being surely not. It is my belief that there should not be possibility for scientists working in this field to claim exclusivity for something that should be available to everyone. However, most of researches are done in universities, and they are paid by state. At least here in Germany.

  • Comment number 16.

    As a scientist I have grappled with the subject of embryonic stem cell use for some years now, and to be clear, as others have already pointed out we are talking exclusively about embryonic stem cell use. The vast majority of research, pioneering and successful treatments use stem cells derived from either adult bone marrow or umbilical cord blood. As a result I find it hard to believe that the future of stem cell therapy is threatened by preventing the use of embryonic cells.
    Nor does this appear to be a solely moral, ethical or religious argument, most people are able to grasp the concept of taking organs or tissue from a living or deceased individual to prolong the life of another. Organ donation is a good example of this.
    The crux of this I feel is money, or more specifically monetary gain derived from the use of embryonic cells, which is, after all what patent law is really about. For cells to be donated is one thing, to make money from them another. In the extreme this might be seen as the prevention of a life or individual to prolong the life of another, for a price, does not sound quite so much like organ donation now. It may sound like science fiction but without regulatory bodies in place making carefully considered judgements what would prevent the ‘farming’ of embryos like any other commodity? And at what point would it become wrong? At what gestation would an embryo or fetus cease to be a lucrative commodity and become a person with rights of their own? The potential for exploitation is huge and a way forward may be hugely complex. For this reason I think the Advocate General is right, patents pertaining to embryonic cells are inappropriate and may lead us down a road we did not want to go. Of one thing I am certain, the way forward does not begin with patents.

  • Comment number 17.

    I'm really impressed with the views expressed here-(well, most of them anyway.)
    Too often we get an unbalanced view of Britain & Europe & I find the comments here refreshing.Thanks!


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