Research scientists are openly protesting against a recent motion to ban stem cell patent protection, which could possibly block stem-cell research in Europe.
On 10 March, Yves Bot, advocate-general of the European Court of Justice, spoke out against current patents that allow research using embryonic stem cells. Bot argued that it was unethical and immoral to patent human cells for commercial use.
Embryonic stem cells, which are naturally found in all humans, can be artificially grown in a lab. Because they are at an early stage of development, they can be transformed into any kind of human tissue, such as muscle or nervous tissue.
Scientists believe that embryonic stem cells can be used as healthy replacement cells for cells that are damaged due to trauma or disease.
Scientists hope that stem cell therapy will eventually be able to treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, spinal cord damage and burns.
The first official trial involving embryonic stem cells in patients began in October 2010 in the US, treating people with spinal injuries.
Key leaders of stem cell projects responded to Bot’s statement via an open letter published in the scientific journal Nature. The letter expressed “profound concern” over the motion to ban patents.
The corresponding author of the letter is Professor Austin Smith, professor of biology at Cambridge University and director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research. Smith received his doctoral degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1986 and joined the University’s Centre for Genome Research, which later became the Institute for Stem Cell Research. Smith was the leader of the Institute from 1996 until 2006.
Smith said: "It would be devastating if the court was to follow this advice. It would put at threat the future of biomedical research in Europe and some projects here could collapse.
"It would also send the message that scientists are engaged in immoral activity so this is very negative for our community and it would erode public confidence in what we do."
The European Court of Justice is expected to submit a ruling within the next two months.