EU Court: No Patents on Human Life

Decision Hailed as a Victory for Human Dignity

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ROME, OCT. 24, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The European Court of Justice has ruled out the possibility of patents in any process involving stem cells taken from human embryos. 

The Oct. 18 ruling came as a result of a case involving Oliver Bruestle of the University of Bonn. He applied for a patent on Dec. 19, 1997, regarding cells produced from human embryonic stem cells used to treat neurological diseases.

Greenpeace challenged the patent in German courts and won when the patent was ruled invalid by the Federal Patent Court. An appeal by Bruestle resulted in the case being referred to the European Court of Justice. 

In its decision the European Court of Justice declared that medical and ethical considerations were outside its competence and that only legal factors were taken into account. 

The court said that "any human ovum must, as soon as fertilized, be regarded as a 'human embryo' if that fertilization is such as to commence the process of development of a human being."

In addition, ovum produced by parthenogenesis must also be classified as human embryos. 

Patents cannot be obtained when human embryos have been used, the court declared. Nevertheless, it did not rule out the possibility of patents for therapeutic or diagnostic purposes, which are to be used on human embryos and which are beneficial to them.

Definition

The Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) welcomed the decision. In its press release COMECE noted that the ruling provided "a broad, scientific sound definition of a human embryo."

Fertilization does indeed mark the beginning of a new human life, they said. "Therefore the human embryo, at every stage of development, must be considered a human being with potential, and not just a 'potential human being.'"

As a result of the decision COMECE declared that scientific research using alternative sources will be given a boost. Until now research using adult stem cells has remained in the shadow of research using embryonic stem cells. 

"The use of adult stem cells, stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood and others offer, in some cases already, significant possibilities for regenerative medicine," COMECE declared.

The European Center for Law and Justice also applauded the decision. Gregor Puppinck, the center's director published a statement in which he said: "This decision protects life and the human dignity in its early development."

He did, however, note that the European Court of Justice said that it is up to national courts to decide whether stem cells taken from a human embryo at the blastocyst stage constitutes a human embryo.

Dignity

L'Osservatore Romano called the decision a victory for human dignity. 

The article commented that in the lead-up to the decision a number of attempts were made to place pressure on the court to rule in favor of allowing patents. In April the magazine Nature published an appeal by some scientists who were in favor of patents for human embryos.

They declared that embryonic stem cells are only cell lines, not embryos. But, L'Osservatore Romano pointed out, they omitted to say that these lines are the product of the destruction of human embryos.

The Vatican itself remains very active in the stem cell debate. It recently signed an agreement for 1 million dollars with an American research company NeoStem. According to an Oct. 20 report by the Los Angeles Times the money will help fund education and research into adult stem cells. 

Father Tomasz Trafny, of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said that the compact was unprecedented. He told the Los Angeles Times that the Vatican decided to go ahead with the deal for two reasons.

"First, they have a strong interest in … searching for the cultural impact of their own work, which is very unusual," he said. "Many companies will look at the profit and only at the profit."

"And the second, of course, is that they share the same moral, ethical sensitivity. ... Because of that ethical position, we entered into this unique collaboration."

The company will also be a participant in a conference due to be held in the Vatican from Nov. 9-11. The conference will be on the  theme "Adult Stem Cells: Science and the Future of Man and Culture."

In a June 16 note on the press conference that announced the meeting issued by the Vatican Information Service, the CEO of NeoStem, Robin Smith, explained that the partnership with the Vatican is focused on four things: "advancing science, eliminating human suffering, educating today's society as well as future generations, and encouraging collaboration in the furtherance of these goals."

Meanwhile, the Pontifical Academy for Life is gearing up for its 3rd International Congress on Responsible Stem Cell Research. It will be held April 25-28, 2012, in Rome.