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May. 09, 2011

Old Laws vs. New Science

by Sam Flatow

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As it turns out, the stem cell debate isn’t unique to America. In 2004, Greenpeace (yes, that Greenpeace) challenged an existing patent for a technique to create neural precursor cells from human embryonic stem cells. The organization’s objection was to the source of the stem cells, human embryos. They claimed that this patent would create an “embryo industry,” which would violate a law that prohibits patents concerning the “uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes.” The case is still slogging through the European court system 7 years later.

Last March, the advocate general of the European Court of Justice asserted his support for Greenpeace: “Thus, Article 6(1) of that directive provides that inventions must be considered unpatentable where their commercial exploitation would be contrary to ordre public or morality. Article 6(2)(c) of the directive cites the use of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes as an example of inventions which are considered unpatentable.” In other words, using embryos for profit or production is immoral, and there is a law against immoral patents.

The advocate general’s arguments are weak. For example, one quoted law he references includes, “human dignity is inviolable and must be respected and protected.” It’s a meaningless phrase because he has failed to prove that patents involving the use of embryos violate “human dignity”, whatever that is. He then goes on to claim that “The full capacity for subsequent development is therefore concentrated into one cell…totipotent cells represent the first stage of the human body which they will become. They must therefore be legally categorized as embryos.” That’s right, a single totipotent cell is legally indistinguishable from a human embryo. Wonderful. It’s like you bought a 10 foot marble statue, but when the delivery guy shows up he hands you a box full of pebbles and a note that reads “Surprise! Now you have a thousand statues! (No refunds.)”

A month later, 13 stem cell researchers replied with an open letter published in the scientific journal “Nature” arguing just that point, “Embryonic stem cells are cell lines, not embryos. They are derived using surplus in vitro fertilized eggs donated after fertility treatment and can be maintained indefinitely. As more than 100 established lines are now supplied through national and international cell banks, concern about commercialization of the human embryo is misplaced.”

The purpose of the law is to prevent the mass production of human embryos in some sort of dystopian Brave New Industry style. Such regulations are the result of healthy, but, in my opinion, outdated skepticism involving the ethical uses of science. It’s good to be careful of possible mistakes, but when those fears are no longer valid then the future should be embraced, not withheld. It needs revision, and while many would argue that a patent on the first cure for a genetic disease would result in a monopoly, which it might, I’d rather the medicine be vastly overpriced for a few years than to never exist. What needs to be more widely understood is that intellectual safeties are required for ingenuity to flourish. If a patent creates a financial or intellectual dilemma, it will be addressed. A legal problem can be fixed but a technological solution must be invented.

About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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