Europe Says Stem Cells Are Not Patentable; Confused Scientists Freak Out
from the this-doesn't-stop-the-market dept
In a major ruling from the European Court of Justice, stem cells have been declared unpatentable in Europe. This is somewhat similar to the ongoing fight in the US over whether or not genes are patentable. Here, the ECJ noted that using stem cells for diagnostic purposes may be patentable, but the simple process of separating a stem cell from a human embryo itself, is not patentable. As with genes, I think it’s the right decision that such things should not be patentable.
What I find unfortunate, however, is that confused scientists are attacking this decision, claiming that without patents, there will be no investment in stem cell research. It will be interesting (and something of a natural experiment) to determine if that’s true. I’m going to guess that the end result will not be what these scientists are predicting. While investment from some big pharma firms may decline, I would bet that the actual usefulness of stem cells is about to go up. Take this complaint for example:
“We are funded to do research for the public good, yet prevented from taking our discoveries to the marketplace where they could be developed into new medicines.
“One consequence is that the benefits of our research will be reaped in America and Asia.”
That’s from Professor Austin Smith of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research, University of Cambridge. But it’s also totally bogus. Nothing in this ruling prevents anyone from taking the discovers to the marketplace where they can be developed into new medicines. This is a fallacy. Professor Smith might want to look up the history of the chemical and dye industries (many of which became today’s pharma industry) in Switzerland and Germany when patents were either not allowed or greatly limited — and learn that it actually helped bring more products to market because everyone could build on the research and do more with it to make it useful. You can still bring products to market, and the incentive is to keep innovating to bring even better offerings to market. And, by not limiting who can make use of these stem cells, you get much greater research efforts and much faster advancement.
Furthermore, as we’ve seen in the past, many research scientists have actually been complaining about how stem cells patents had massively hindered their research. Perhaps if Smith took the time to talk to some of those researchers he might realize the benefit from keeping stem cells and other genetic material unpatentable.
If the goal truly is to improve “the public good,” then this is a fantastic ruling. It means that more smart people can do more with stem cells to make them useful.