Stem Cell Strife in US and EU Courts

Posted by Doug Pet May 11, 2011
Biopolitical Times
Concurrent developments in US and European courts regarding funding and oversight of stem cell research have reopened passionate debates about the status of human embryos, corporate interests, and the public good.

Last week, a US Federal Appeals Court lifted an injunction that had put a new hold on federal funding for research involving human embryonic stem cells. The ruling by the three-judge panel reinstated President Obama's 2009 order allowing federal tax dollars to be put towards research on human embryonic stem cell lines.

Opponents of the decision argue that the government should not fund research that harms embryos even indirectly. According to their interpretation of the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for activities that involved the destruction of human embryos, federal spending should not be permitted for research on new cell lines that were originally derived from (privately funded) embryo-destructive processes.

Ironically, the case now lands once again in the lap of district court judge Royce Lamberth, who in August 2010 effectively blocked President Obama's policy by issuing the injunction banning federal funding across the board.

Meanwhile on the other side of the pond, European scientists and major players in the biotech industry are up in arms over a recommendation by Yves Bot, Advocate General of the European Court of Justice, that patents involving human embryonic stem cells be prohibited. Bot advanced his opinion on ethical grounds, arguing that since the stem cell lines derive from processes that destroy embryos, patenting the resulting techniques amounts to the commercialization of human tissues.

Thirteen scientists associated with the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research published an open letter in Nature [subscription required] opposing the recommendation. It is worth mentioning that three of the signatories hold patents involving human stem cell lines. Their objections are both technical and economic in nature.
Embryonic stem cells are cell lines, not embryos. They are derived using surplus in vitro fertilized eggs donated after fertility treatment and can be maintained indefinitely.

Scientists working in stem-cell medicine will not be able to deliver clinical benefits without the involvement of biological industry. But innovative companies must have patent protection as an incentive to become active in Europe.

Bot's opinion will now be up for consideration by 13 judges in the European court's Grand Chamber, which is expected to make a decision in the next two months. Even in controversial issues, the courts have about an 80 percent track record of following recommendations from the Advocate General. And although guidelines set forth by the Court of Justice are not binding for EU countries, they generally have significant impact on national policies throughout the EU.

In some respects, this case parallels the ongoing debate over the legality of human gene patenting, which looks to be headed for the US Supreme Court. Supporters of gene patents, like those who support patents on human embryonic stem cells, argue that not allowing patents will scare off private investors, bringing important medical research to a screeching halt. And both controversies hinge on questions about the commercialization of what many see as naturally occurring tissues that cannot and should not be "owned," rather than as human inventions. Unlike the gene patent question, however, the parallel stem cell controversies in the US and Europe are muddied by the fraught politics of abortion.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: