London: Research scientists hit out on Wednesday at a European Court of Justice (ECJ) case they say could block development of embryonic stem cell-based therapies in Europe.
The ECJ`s advocate general has said all patents on embryonic stem cell-related technologies should be banned on moral grounds, but in a letter in the journal Nature and during a briefing in London, leading stem cell scientists said that could spell disaster for drug firms seeking treatments for conditions such as blindness and spinal chord injuries.
"If the ECJ was to follow this opinion, the reality is that all patents in Europe that relate to human embryonic stem cells will be eliminated," said Austin Smith of the Center for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge, one of letter`s 13 signatories.
"This will put Europe at a huge disadvantage."
Stem cell technology has proved controversial because some cell lines are derived from embryos.
Embryonic stem cells come from human embryos that are just a few days old and can produce any type of cell in the body. Scientists generally harvest them from embryos left over after in-vitro fertilization (IVF) attempts at fertility clinics, which would otherwise be thrown away.
Two U.S. companies -- Advanced Cell Technology and Geron -- have recently won regulatory approval for late-stage human trials of therapies using human embryonic stem cells, and many other companies are pursuing aspects of stem cell research in Europe.
These include U.S. drugs giant Pfizer, the Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca, Swiss drugmaker Roche, the French company Cellectis and a small Italian biotech called Avantea, the scientists said.
The ECJ case, on which no final judgment has yet been made, is the last stage of a long-running legal battle about a patent filed several years ago by scientists in Germany and challenged by the environmental group Greenpeace.
The ECJ`s advocate general for this case, Yves Bot, last month advised that the patenting of applications using embryonic stem cells should be banned on moral grounds.
The ECJ, Europe`s highest court, upholds opinions by advocates` general in the vast majority of cases and it is expected to rule on this case sometime in the next few months.
Smith and his fellow signatories -- who include leading stem cell researchers from all over Europe -- argued that patenting is a key step in the development of new medical treatments.
Without the protection of patents, they said, drug companies will not invest in the research or in the cell manufacturing technologies needed to develop stem cell therapies.
"Innovative companies must have patent protection as an incentive to become active in Europe," they wrote.
The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) said a move to ban patents "will preclude investment in potentially life-saving treatments."