Patenting stem cells is 'ethical'

By Dr Matt Wilkinson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Stem cell Patent United states patent and trademark office

A recent article published in the journal Stem Cell has advocated
the patenting of isolated stem cell lines.

The authors argue that because the isolation of stem cells implies modification, product patents should apply where the results are novel due to the fact that they believe that an isolated embryonic stem cell represents a culture artefact and is not equivalent to the cells of the embryo. They conclude that an isolated stem cell could be distinguished as something different to the stem cell existing as part of the human body. The conclusions were reached during a collaboration between ethics researchers Mats G. Hansson and Gert Helgesson, of the Center for Bioethics, Richard Wessman at the Department of Law, Uppsala University, and stem cell researcher, Rudolf Jaenisch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Our conclusion is that, in principle, stem cells can be patentable and that this is consonant with ethical views that the human embryo should enjoy special protection owing to its capacity to develop into a human being. This will be of interest to a great many people,"​ said Professor Mats G. Hansson, of the Center for Bioethics at Uppsala University. The authors state that European patent authorities and the European Commission's European Group on Ethics (EGE) have excluded the possibility of patenting stem cells on several occasions. They highlight paragraph seven of EU directive 98/44/EC, which argues that isolated stem cells that have not been modified, do not, as products, fulfil the legal requirements to be patentable. However, in its second report to the Council and European Parliament, the EGE concludes that it would be premature to come to a definitive conclusion with regard to patentability of inventions relating to stem cells. According to Dr Peter Cozens, of ProPharma Partners and chair of the BioIndustry Association (BIA) Intellectual Property Advisory Committee, the EGE had not actually taken a very strong view on the matter did not come out in support or against stem cell patentability. Rather, he said they raised two issues that derive from the Biotech Directive, which discusses the use of embryos. These are what are the definitions of embryos and use. When you extract cells from an embryo you are using an embryo, but when you move downstream and cause those stem cells to differentiate into specific stem cell lines, are you still using an embryo? He continued by telling "The BIA agrees with the conclusions of the authors of this article and notes that it is consistent with the views of other bodies such as the UK patent body,"​ The authors of the article do highlight the potentially detrimental effects of stem cell patents if the scope of a patent is too wide-ranging. They cite the example of the how the US Patent and Trademark Office (UPTO) have handled the Wisconsin Alumni Research foundation (WARF) patents. They comment that the scope of the WARF patents, which cite primate (including human) embryonic stem cells and human embryonic stem cells, appear to have far-reaching possibilities to hinder the use, selling, making and importation of stem cells in the US. The European Patent Office (EPO) recently rejected the WARF patent.

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