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A Hard Sell for European Scientists

By Michael Cook

A milestone case in the European Court of Justice sheds light on opposition to human embryo research.

Michael Cook is editor of the internet bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

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“Medicine thrown into crisis by stem cell ruling” was the dramatic headline in the British newspaper The Independent after a landmark ruling from the European Court of Justice in October. “This is a devastating decision which will stop stem cell therapies’ use in medicine,” said Prof Peter Coffey of University College, London. “The potential to treat disabling and life-threatening disease commonly using stem cells will not be realised in Europe.”

The occasion for these lamentations was a ruling from the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg on 18 October that bans the patenting of inventions based on human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). Although patents already granted involving hESC stem cell lines are still valid, even these could be threatened.

Stem cell scientists around the world were appalled. Prof Martin Pera of the University of Melbourne said that the news would not directly affect Australian researchers, but it would have a chilling effect when hESC research looks very promising. “Clinical trials of cell therapeutics derived from embryonic stem cells are already underway in the United States for spinal cord injury and macular degeneration, and more are on the way,” he said.

However, the ruling came as no surprise in the light of previous decisions. At the centre of the dispute is a 1998 biotechnology directive from the European Union which...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.