In what could be a milestone case, the Court of Justice of the European Communities is expected to clarify and define the term human embryo as used in European patent law within the next few months. But patent law should not be driven solely by the interests of patent holders (Nature 472, 418; 2011).
The environmental group Greenpeace started this court case to obtain clarification of European patent directive 98/44/EC, which prohibits the granting of patents on “uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes” and on “the human body at the various stages of its formation and development”.
The European patent granted in 1999 to Austin Smith, Peter Mountford and the University of Edinburgh, UK (EP 0695351; 1999), covered human embryos, embryonic stem cells and their production from human embryos. Opposition from Greenpeace and others, including the German and Dutch governments, caused the European Patent Office (EPO) to revoke large parts of the patent.
In 2008, the EPO decided in another precedent case (G2/06) not to grant patents on human embryonic stem cells produced by the destruction of human embryos. The number of European patent applications in stem-cell research has since increased. We expect the European Court of Justice to make a similar decision to the EPO and think that, in general, stem-cell research will not be affected.
We believe that patents should not encourage the production or destruction of human embryos for commercial use. Before the European patent directive came into force in 1998, the scientific community and the biotechnology industry had lobbied for its approval. Clear ethical limits were a precondition for its adoption by the European Parliament. Science and industry should now respect these limits.