Research involving a human egg used to produce embryonic stem cells unable to develop into an embryo can be patented, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled Thursday.
The decision is of major interest for biotechnology companies investing in stem cell research. Work on stem cell therapies is still experimental, but researchers believe they could be used to treat a range of diseases from Parkinson's to blindness. Until now, however, strict restrictions on obtaining patents have slowed research.
The case was brought in Britain by US company International Stem Cell Corporation against the UK Intellectual Property Office for refusing to grant it two patents covering the use of human egg cells.
The British authorities had argued that since the eggs involved were active and developing organisms, even though they were not fertilized by male sperm, previous EU law prevented the company from securing a patent on them. In 2011, the ECJ had ruled that stem cell research involving human embryos could not be patented.
International Stem Cell Corporation argued that the eggs, activated by a chemical process known as parthenogenesis, could not develop into human beings as they lacked the full parental DNA required.
Thursday's ruling stated that such organisms do not constitute human embryos, and that their uses in scientific research could therefore be patented.
"In order to be classified as a 'human embryo,' a non-fertilized human ovum must necessarily have the inherent capacity of developing into a human being," a statement from the ECJ said.
The statement also made clear that if an egg is able to develop into an embryo, "it should be treated in the same way as a fertilized human ovum, at all stages of its development." In that case, EU member states would still have the right under existing law to deny patents on ethical and moral grounds.
Stem cell research has long been controversial, with critics arguing against the use of embryos left over from fertility treatment. However, scientists contend that the research is justified as the stem cells they used are derived from surplus eggs. Embryonic stem cells are more flexible than adult stem cells, and therefore more widely used in research.
lvw/mg (AFP, Reuters, dpa)