Stem Cell Research Threatened


M. W. Lensch, Children's Hospital, Boston, MA

The European Court of Justice is currently considering a test case proposal, which would ban the patenting of stem cell techniques for commercial purposes. If this proposal is supported by the court then it could mean a significant loss of the biotechnology industries, for which Britain is a world leader, to either China or the US.

The Biotechnology industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and one of the few growth areas within the British economy. It seems not only foolhardy, but a distinct step backwards for the field, which has, quite rightly, been under intense ethical scrutiny since its inception.

It is not only current research into conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and blindness under threat, but academics believe it is the future of the industry in Europe under threat. Currently there are over one hundred different techniques patented across Europe, if this directive is brought into force then all of these will be void. In a letter to the esteemed journal Nature, including thirteen prominent signatories, Professor Austin Smith, the director of the Wellcome Trust centre for stem cell research in Cambridge, says, “Other patents will apply in the United States, China and Japan, so this will put Europe at a huge disadvantage. It will effectively wipe out the European biotech industry in this area.”

Academics are particularly worried about this proposal due to the court’s advocate general, Yves Bot, having stated that he believes patenting of embryonic stem cell techniques breaches ethical principles. This is particularly worrying as the court rules with the advocate general on eight of every ten cases.

I disagree with the advocate general’s view for a number of reasons; firstly the proposed directive stops the licensing authorities from approving  effective therapies due to supposed “immorality”. I disagree that patenting a technique which has cost millions to develop and research is immoral. I think it is immoral if rival companies are able to effectively steal the final product and produce it a much lower cost, with no legal recourse available.

More importantly, I think it is a moral obligation for society to try to prevent disease and suffering. As Professor Pete Coffey states, “There’s an ethical need to treat disease which appears to have been lost in this whole debate.”



About the author

Thomas Parkhill

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A Conservative leaning molecular biology graduate. Interested in politics, sport and music. Originally from Boston, Lincolnshire.

  • Matthew Lymer

    What surprises me is that a majority of European countries allow abortion on demand, and only argue on how long after fertilization before the embryo is considered a human being; yet the stem cell research is being threatened, in spite of the fact the stem cells can be harvested from embryos young enough to be allowed for abortion. Essentially implying their destruction is preferable to their use for prevention of disease.

    Also, i am curious if this will affect adult stem cell research? As this is harvested from bone marrow and umbilical chords, and thus not at all immoral.

    • Thomas Parkhill

      Interesting point I’m not sure if this will affect adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cell research, but i suspect it is unique to embryonic stem cells. Of course other stem cell research is not, as promising as embryonic stem cells, as they have specialised to a certain extent and are no longer totipotent.

      A very valid point, although it must be pointed out that a large amount of the embryonic stem cells available for research are from these abortion clinics.