EU Moves to Limit Stem Cell Patent | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.07.2002
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EU Moves to Limit Stem Cell Patent

The European Patent Office overturned a controversial patent on stem cell extraction methods following criticism that the invention violated an EU directive banning patents on human embryos for commercial purposes.


Fourteen parties had launched an appeal against the patent, including the German, Italian and Dutch governments.

The European Patent Office ruled on Wednesday to restrict the scope of a controversial patent on the cultivation of stem cells in order to keep it from being used to clone humans.

In 1999, the Munich-based office – which is responsible for issuing and overseeing European patents – granted Edinburgh University and the Australian company Stem Cell Sciences a patent for a technology relating to the cultivation and isolation of stem cells.

Several months after the agency issued the patent, the environmental organization Greenpeace launched a major wave of protests across Europe when it learned that the patent also covered human beings, apparently in violation of European law and national laws in several member states.

"A mistake"

The patent office said it had overlooked a passage referring to humans when it reviewed the 235-page application. At the time, agency spokesman Rainer Osterwadter described the decision as a "mistake," but said the patent's scope couldn't be changed unless critics issued a formal objection as permitted within nine months after an EU patent is approved.

Fourteen parties then launched an appeal against the patent, including the German, Italian and Dutch governments.

After three days of public hearings, the Patent Office on Wednesday ruled that the sections of the patent pertaining to human cells would no longer be valid. In their ruling, officials said the patent petition had been written too vaguely and that it violated a 1998 EU directive stating that the "use of human embryos can't be patented for commercial or industrial purposes."

The case has been particularly sensitive in Germany, where an Embryo Protection Law banning the destruction of host embryos in order to extract stem cells has been on the books since 1990. This spring, the country passed a law allowing the importation of embryonic stem cell lines that were produced in other countries prior to January 1, 2002. But domestic or continued international cultivation is prohibited under the new rules.

Earlier this week, Germany's Justice Minister, Herta Däubler-Gmelin of the Social Democrats, called on Edinburgh University to withdraw its patent. "The Embryo Protection Law sets the limits for patents," she told the "Financial Times Deutschland" newspaper, adding that cloning of human beings, the commercial and industrial use of the human genome or the cultivation of stem cells can't be patented.

Volker Beck, the legal affairs spokesman for the parliamentary group of Alliance '90/The Greens, said: "Preserving human dignity prohibits the placement of human life under the control of commercial exploitation."

German government: "We are absolutely pleased"

The German government reacted positively to the decision. "We are absolutely pleased with the opposition division's decision," said Hamburg patent attorney Christof Keussen, who represented the federal government.

Greenpeace also applauded the ruling, saying it would serve as a precedent for future cases. A spokeswoman said the organization was pleased the Patent Office had cited ethical grounds and not just technicalities as its reason for overturning the patent.