- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 18, 2011

LONDON (AP) - The European Union’s top court ruled Tuesday that scientists cannot patent stem cell techniques that use human embryos for research, a decision some scientists said could threaten major medical advances if it prevents biotech companies from turning a profit.

The ruling sets Europe apart from much of the rest of the world, where there are no such restrictions, and it arose from a lawsuit filed not by a religious group but by the environmental group Greenpeace.

The decision from the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg centered on the case of a University of Bonn researcher who in 1997 filed a patent on a technique to turn embryonic stem cells into nerve cells. Greenpeace challenged Oliver Bruestle’s patent, arguing that it allowed human embryos to be exploited.

The court said patents would be allowed if they involved therapeutic or diagnostic techniques that are useful to the embryo itself, like correcting defects.

But the justices concluded that the law protects human embryos from any use that could undermine their dignity. The court also objected to any stem cell techniques used exclusively for research, saying such use of embryos “is not patentable.”

Embryonic stem cells can develop into any type of cell in the body. The hope is that one day they might be used to replace or repair damaged tissue from ailments such as heart disease, Parkinson’s and stroke.

But using stem cells from embryos has always been controversial _ opposed by some groups for religious and moral reasons.

Greenpeace spokesman Christoph Then explained that the lawsuit was an effort to get a clear, legal definition of what constitutes a living embryo. The group is concerned that patents on plants and animals could lead to monopolies in food production.

Greenpeace approaches the issue from “a completely different angle” than anti-abortion activists, specifically a fear that living creatures will be abused for the sake of profits, Then said.

“We took an ethical approach,” he said, noting that European patent law had failed to define what constitutes a human embryo. “We are mostly concerned about commercialization of the human body.”

Scientists worried that the decision could further restrict stem cell research. Many feared that companies would be less interested in pursuing costly research projects because they would be unable to protect their inventions.

“This casts real doubt on the possibility of new medicines from stem cell research,” said Pete Coffey, a researcher at University College London running several projects on eye disease and stem cells.

“Getting a stem cell technique to cure blindness is fantastic, but it may never get out as a medicine because no manufacturer will get any financial reward from it,” he said.

Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer at Massachusetts-based Advanced Cell Technology, called the ruling “a devastating decision for the field.”

Lanza, whose company has several stem cell projects, described the European court’s decision as “the kiss of death” for research that requires the destruction of embryos. But, he said, other techniques, such as those used by his company, would not be banned.

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