Stem cell patent row
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.