The european patent office has withdrawn the controversial patent on embryonic stem cells from the university of edinburgh after three years
Every year, the european patent office (epo) grants around 400 gene patents. As a rule, both the applications and the grants are reviewed by several experts. This was also the case with an application from the university of edinburgh in 1999. The scientists wanted to secure the rights to use stem cells for industrial, i.E. Commercial purposes. However, the three reviewers entrusted with the review of the proposal seem to have had a bad day: they overlooked the fact that the patent to be granted referred not only to plant stem cells but also to animal stem cells. But that was not the end of the complications, because embryonic stem cells were also patented and, according to the english language, the definition of "animal" includes humans (the european patent office inadvertently granted a patent that also covers genetic modifications in humans).
Following prompt complaints from 14 european parties, including germany, italy and the netherlands, the munich-based epo corrected the 1999 decision today (wednesday). The joy was on the side of a large number of parties, institutions and organizations. German spd justice minister herta daubler-gmelin, for example, was delighted and, in an interview with inforadio berlin-brandenburg, considered the appeal to have been "fully passed". The deputy chairwoman of the cdu "the cultivation of human (!) embryonic stem cells must not be patented." other parties, environmental organizations and medical associations were also pleased with the decision.
According to the decision of the munich office, embryonic stem cells can no longer be patented, as this would allow the creation of genetically modified organisms. Two aspects of the "edinburgh patent" was thus restricted again. From now on, researchers will not only be restricted to so-called adult stem cells, but will also have to refrain from using animal embryonic material. According to herta daubler-gmelin, medical research is in no way affected by the law.
The correction of the three year old scandal patent was made possible through the backdoor. It was not the patent itself that was directly corrected, but rather it was retroactively declared to be inconsistent with the provisions of the "european patent convention" (european patent office releases patenting of plants and animals). The fact that this includes not only technical but also ethical aspects was seen by the environmental organization greenpeace as a decisive victory in the legal dispute with the scottish researchers. The organization’s spokeswoman, carmen ulmen, saw the munich decision as a precedent for future applications involving human stem cells. After all, ulmen said, the epo already had "dozens of applications in the stockpile" (new accusations from greenpeace against the european patent office). Greenpeace also believes that all patents already granted should be reviewed in light of today’s munich decision. Patents on embryos, parts of the human body, other living beings and their patents should be banned without any restrictions.
The winners cheered loudly today, but the question of who actually has an interest in the preemptively banned patents on embryonic stem cells threatens to recede into the background. A look at the university of edinburgh’s cooperation partners provides some insight. Here is the name of the australian company specializing in the cultivation of human stem cells "stem cell sciences" (scs) (greenpeace discovers another patent application that includes human embryos). The otherwise highly praised public-private partnership between public research institutions and private-sector companies takes on a very unique perspective here: under the prere of economic competition, ethical standards are in danger of being overtaken by economic interests. This trend is likely to intensify as the state withdraws from its duty and private partners gain the upper hand. Against this background, it is not surprising that the patent-applying university is located in great britain, where the privatization of the education system is already quite advanced by european standards.
So it’s all just a defensive struggle? According to christoph then, a genetic engineering expert at greenpeace, it will be at least more difficult for the industry to enforce comparable patents in the future. However, this is still not ruled out. Therefore, the european patent law must be changed in such a way that the patenting of living beings and genes is fundamentally excluded.