Why are we worried about patenting?

Posted on May 5, 2011 by


Last week, a French judge ruled that you should not be able to patent scientific techniques involving embryonic stem cells. Scientists hit the news voicing their concerns that this ruling will make it difficult to get funding to do their research in the UK. Patenting new techniques is how money is made from discoveries and many funders won’t be attracted to invest if they can’t make money out of their investment. Medical research charities fund a lot of research involving embryonic stem cells so they are concerned too, not only where their rights to the research they fund will stand but also the impact on their ability to attract pharmaceutical companies to co-fund research with them – collaborations which a lot of research depends on.

The French judge’s ruling wasn’t final and isn’t binding just now, the 13 judges of the Grand Chamber of the European Court need to look at it and decide whether to agree with it or not. So we need to keep watching this story. Yesterday Jack Straw asked David Cameron about this at PMQs in the House of Commons. He confirmed that the government is following the court’s decisions and then talked about the UK’s leadership in stem cell research, indicating that they are keen to maintain this. Achieving this will mean ensuring that we have an attractive environment for investors in research, one in which they can make economic returns from their investments.


There has been an ongoing court case in Germany over a patent on a technique  involving embryonic stem cells. The case was referred to the European Court of Justice which asked its advocate general, Yves Bot, for his legal opinion on whether such patents should be allowed.

His opinion is that patents involving human embryonic stem cells should not be allowed.

This opinion will now be considered by 13 judges in the Grand Chamber of the European Court.

If they decide to uphold it. All existing patents involving human embryonic stem cells will be dissolved and no future patents will be issued. This decision will be binding across Europe.

There is a good article explaining the problem with a nice Q&A in the Independent. And check out Fergus Walsh’s blog.

What next?

We need to wait for the 13 Judges to make their decision – this should be in the next couple of months. So watch this space.

If they decide to uphold the opinion, this could have a big impact on the UK because investors in research involving embryo stem cells would not be able to patent their discoveries.  They would be likely to invest in other countries where they could patent any new techniques they develop.

This ban on patents would be a big problem particularly for the UK because we are very good at stem cell research, and this is a big growth area bringing lots of economic benefits (healthcare & life sciences is one of the growth areas the government identified in its recent plan for growth and is keen to foster). It looks likely that the UK Government will be following this closely.

Posted in: Policy