The European Patent Office in Munich upheld a decision rejecting a patent on developing human embryonic stem cells. The move could stifle research by stem-cell companies for commercial purposes.
The use of embryonic stem cells for research is a controversial topic in Europe
The initial decision, made in June, ruled against a patent application filed in 1995 by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation regarding the use of embryonic stem cells.
"European patent law prohibits the patenting of human stem cell cultures whose preparation necessarily involves the destruction of human embryos," the European Patent Office said in a statement on Thursday, Nov. 27.
These stem cell cultures, taken from days-old embryos, work as a type of master cell for the body and are capable of changing into many different types of tissues and cells. Advocates say it is an important route to explore for potential cures for conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries.
Opponents call the research unethical because it requires the destruction of the embryo.
An "ethical victory"
Some say stem cells are an important avenue for finding cures for chronic diseases
Bavarian Justice Minister Beate Merk from the conservative Christian Democratic Union declared the ruling an "ethical victory." The decision made it clear that the patent office does have an ethical boundary, she told the German news service Tagesschau.
The environmental organization Greenpeace likewise praised the ruling as a milestone: "Without public interference, such patents would long be accepted."
In the US, companies like Geron Corp have been granted patents on certain types of human embryonic stem cell growth technology.
The board's decision to uphold the earlier ruling could keep some companies from jumping into the sector here and steer investors to put their money elsewhere. Without patent protection, companies looking to profit from technology using stem cells have little incentive to pour money into research.
University of Wisconsin researcher James Thomson was the first to isolate human embryonic stem cells in 1988, a discovery which was later patented.
But that patent, and others related to it held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, had been challenged.