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Stem cell decision

October 18, 2011

The European Court of Justice has banned the patenting of stem cell procedures that would result in the destruction of human embryos. The ruling is a major blow to an emerging field of medical science.

Stem cells under a microscope
European scientists' work with embryonic stem cells is limitedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

On Tuesday, the European Union's highest court banned researchers from patenting the extraction of human stem cells when it leads to the destruction of a human embryo.

The European Court of Justice said in its decision that use of human embryos "for therapeutic or diagnostic purposes which are applied to the human embryo and are useful to it is patentable," adding that "their use for purposes of scientific research is not patentable."

The decision at the court in Luxembourg came after a German Federal Court of Justice had asked the ECJ to rule on an appeal from Greenpeace, which filed a lawsuit over a patent awarded to a German scientist, Oliver Brüstle.

He developed a technique to create new nerve cells from human embryonic stem cells to treat patients with Parkinson's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

Over a decade of work

Oliver Brüstle was the first German scientist to work with human embryonic stem cells in his home country. He has studied and worked in Germany, Switzerland and the US, and was a neurosurgeon at the Erlangen-Nürnberg university clinic.

Microscopic image of a human egg being fertilized
Brüstle believes embryos left over from IVF treatment should not be thrown awayImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Besides holding Germany's first chair for reconstructive neurobiology since 2002, he is co-founder and managing director of the biomedical company "Life & Brain", which focuses on the artificial production of human brain and bone marrow cells.

Given everything that has happened since Brüstle began working with stem cells in 1999, it is surprising that he's still willing to talk about what he does.

In the year 2000, the neuroscientist sent a letter to the German Research Foundation (DFG) which resulted in him having to seriously defend himself, and to his family being placed under police protection.

"I can well remember the day I posted our application to cultivate nerve cells from human embryonic stem cells," he recalls. "I was really excited to see how the DFG would react, whether they would approve it, what they would decide."

Contentious issue

Politicians, church representatives, philosophers and scientists pounced on his application, and furious debate about human dignity and the point at which life begins ensued.

German neurobiologist Oliver Bruestle
Oliver Brüstle hopes stem cell research can treat neurodegenerative diseaseImage: AP

Discussion raged on the ethics of destroying embryos left over from in-vitro fertility treatment, and subsequently transporting harvested stem cells to Germany.

"I believe we have a responsibility to develop new treatments, and that rather than literally throwing such cells away, it is justifiable to produce cell lines which medicine can use to develop new procedures," Brüstle told Deutsche Welle.

He said to have left Germany at that time would have felt like running away, which, given the progress he had already made and the perspectives he saw within the field, he did not want to do.

First stem cell visions

The scientist first became aware of the potential of stem cell research in the 1990s during a research trip to the US. He came into contact with animal stem cells at the National Institutes of Health, and has had a vision ever since.

"To multiply such cells in order to then cultivate them into nerve cells which could be transplanted into patients with neurodegenerative diseases," he said.

European Court of Justice
The European Court of Justice ruling is a blow for stem cell researchersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A breakthrough moment on the path to seeing his dream become reality, came in 1998 when James Thompson, an American scientist, successfully isolated the first human embryonic cells.

"I got on a plane, and sent Jeremy Thompson a message to say I'd like to meet him briefly," Brüstle said.

Thompson was quick to respond, and the two began working together towards cultivating nerve cells from human embryonic stem cells.

"It was a very exciting time, we wrote publications together and stayed in contact over many years," he recalled.

Restricted development role for Europe

Much has changed since them. The importance of stem cell research has now been recognized around the world, and some of the ethical furor has died down.

Brüstle stayed in Germany and founded his "Life & Brain" biomedical company in an effort to close the gap between science and application. In 2002 he was made professor of Reconstructive Neurobiology at the University of Bonn.

"Within the next decade, I would at least like to see it become possible to treat some diseases of the nervous system using stem cells," he said, adding that stem cell technology is also likely to open new doors in the development of pharmaceuticals.

But following Tuesday's ruling, European countries will have a limited role in that development.

"It means that fundamental research can take place in Europe, but that developments that follow from that cannot be implemented in Europe," the scientist told reporters after the verdict. "It means European researchers can prepare these things but others will pick the fruits in the U.S. or Asia."

Reporter: Marlis Schaum / tkw
Editor: Cyrus Farivar