More discussion about impact of ban on patenting embryo stem cells

Posted on October 28, 2011 by


Yesterday David Willetts confirmed the UK government is exploring the impact of the new EU ban on patenting of embryo stem cells and that they will continue funding research using embryo stem cells.


The European Court of Justice made a decision on 18 October which effectively bans the patenting of scientific techniques involving embryonic stem cells, even if the technique itself does not directly destroy an embryo but at some stage in the process has involved the use of an embryo.

This has no effect on us doing research using embryos or cells derived from embryos in the UK – this is still allowed, strictly regulated through UK law. But there is ongoing discussion over the impact this decision will have on investment in stem cell 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.

However, there have also been suggestions that the effect on research in the UK could be the opposite, that this may actually free up researchers from concerns about infringing intellectual property and give them more freedom to do research.

Government bodies including the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) are looking into the implications of the ruling at the moment. UKIPO gives out advice on patenting so will be developing this at the moment.

What was discussed yesterday?

In response to concerns from Graham Stringer and Anne Begg that this might drive research abroad to countries where discoveries can be patented, and might discourage research using embryo stem cells here, David Willetts confirmed that UK research councils and the technology strategy board will continue to fund research using human embryonic stem cells. He also confirmed the UK government are looking at the ruling and assessing the impacts this might have (the Intellectual Property Office is looking at this).

George Freeman, the new Life sciences minister was also there and prompted David Willetts to mention government support for life sciences and their plans to establish the Health Research Authority to streamline the regulation of health research and make it easier to do in the UK.

Stem Cell Research

9. Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to protect stem cell research in the UK following the decision of the European Court of Justice to prohibit the patenting of inventions based on human stem cells; and if he will make a statement. [76862]

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): We are—[Interruption.] We are carefully considering the impact of the ruling—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I think we have had enough references to animals. Let us now experience the product of one of the brains of the Minister.

Mr Willetts: I will do my best, Mr Speaker.

As I was saying, we are carefully considering the impact of the ruling on current UK patent practice. The Technology Strategy Board currently funds 15 studies involving human stem cells, two of which use human embryonic stem cells. The TSB and the research councils will continue to support and fund research on stem cells from all sources, including embryonic.

Graham Stringer: That was an interesting reply, because leading scientists in the field have called the decision everything from “devastating” to “appalling”. They believe this work will move to South Korea and Canada, and that potential cures for people suffering from degenerative diseases will be developed later, if they are developed at all. I simply do not understand the Minister’s answer, and I would like more details on how he is going to stop this work going abroad.

Mr Willetts: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this research is very important in tackling fundamental human illnesses such as Parkinson’s, and that is why we will continue to support it. We are assessing the implications of the ECJ ruling. It is important that stem cells can be derived in a variety of ways, and embryonic stem cells are only one source of stem cells. That is why we need more time to assess the implications of this judgment.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): I am sure the Minister agrees that stem cell science is one of Britain’s great strengths. The feeling within the industry is that this Government are putting their money where their mouth is. In contrast to the accusations and nonsense coming from Opposition Members that we are not investing in science, the recent £195 million investment in graphene and supercomputing and the protection of the science budget amounts to a real growth strategy.

Mr Willetts: We are totally committed to investing in life sciences in Britain, and let me give a practical example of how we can cut the burden of regulation to bring this industry forward: we have committed to reducing the time it takes to start a clinical trial from over 600 days—the period we inherited from the previous Government—to 70 days in future under us.

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): My understanding is that the Court’s judgment does not stop research into embryonic stem cells, but that it does mean that scientists will not be able to patent anything worth while, and that therefore the intellectual property is likely to go abroad, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said. What are the Government going to do to stop that happening, because this research is vital for people with degenerative diseases?

Mr Willetts: The hon. Lady is right: this is vital research. The crucial points, however, are that the research is taking place using stem cells from a range of sources, not just embryonic stem cells, and we are continuing to assess how much of the research and development that currently takes place in Britain would be affected by this judgment.

The jury is still out on the impact of this ruling. There’s an interesting piece in the Times today Greenpeace does not oppose embryonic stem cell research, and the ECJ ruling will not be bad for science by the executive director of Greenpeace, John Sauven (the ban stems from a decision over a case involving Greenpeace and a scientist, Professor Oliver Brüstle). He suggests that the impacts on science may have been overblown. He quotes Julian Hitchcock, a patent specialist with the law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse suggesting this might actually give researchers more freedom:

The ruling may actually present an opportunity for researchers who in the past have complained that their work is held back by the fear of inadvertently infringing a patent.

And the British Heart Foundation, whose Mending Broken Hearts campaign is raising funds to invest in regenerative medicine, which can involve research using human embryonic stem cells, are positive that this will not impact on UK science:

While we are concerned by the ECJ ruling, and it will no doubt be disappointing to some researchers,it should not affect our ability to deliver our regenerative medicine programme.

We’re confident we will continue to attract the best scientists from around the world to help us accelerate the pace of cardiac regenerative medicine; and to mend broken hearts.

Posted in: Policy