4 May, 2011 - 14:18 By Tony Quested

Threat of stem cell patent ban an affront to civil liberties

Some potty ideas emanate from Europe but the latest act of folly just about takes the croissant.


Britain in particular and Europe in general has the rare honour of leading the US in terms of stem cell science advances.

Now, in a misguided move, the European Court of Justice is threatening to ban patent protection for embryonic stem cell lines. Without patent protection the chance of meaningful funding for the science rapidly diminishes and Intellectual Property rights protection becomes a free-for-all.

Celebrated Cambridge stem cell scientist Austin Smith joined other eminent stem cell scientists to condemn the threat in an open letter to Nature.

Professor Smith, from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge, is a co-signatory to a letter in Nature expressing “profound concern” over the proposals.

He and European colleagues write: “The advocate-general of the European Court of Justice has recommended the prohibition on ethical grounds of patents involving human embryonic stem cells (Nature 471, 280; 2011).

“As more than 100 established lines are supplied through national and international cell banks, concern about commercialisation of the human embryo is totally misplaced.”

This is fact, not supposition.

Stem cell research has long been dogged by appalling ignorance but this threat from the European Court of Justice defies belief.

It cites ethical grounds for its stance, yet the premise for its standpoint is clearly erroneous.

The advances made in European stem cell research during a time of stasis in the United States have offered hope for millions of people in this and future generations across the length and breadth of the planet.

The potential benefits to people’s health and quality of life will also carry a payback to NHS Trusts in Britain and equivalents in Europe and ensure that age-related disease does not equate to being condemned to a long, slow, graceless death.

Our stem cell scientists and their work deserve a better fate than to be sacrificed on an artificially-constructed altar of unwarranted piety.

If this patent ban is enforced our top scientisists in Britain and other European countries may well join a new brain drain to the Johnny-come-lately stem cell sector in America.

European governments will have time to reflect on the difference between ethics and synthetics and the cost not just to their economies but to society and the human condition. This proposal is an affront and a contravention to human rights and civil liberties.


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