Patented man?

A landmark decision on the patentability of human embryonic stem cells is pending at the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the EPO's Enlarged Board of Appeal will hold a hearing on a previously unapproved patent held by the U.S. company Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Critics such as the environmental organization Greenpeace expect the outcome of the test case to be binding for all other pending cases. According to the information, this involves about 100 more patent applications.

The decision concerns a patent applied for by US researcher James Thomson back in January 1995. So far it has failed. The Enlarged Board of Appeal of the EPO is the final instance. Their ruling cannot be challenged in any other court. Dietmar Mieth, an ethicist from Tubingen, described it as problematic in a press conference that the EPO could make fundamental ethical decisions of this scope. The Catholic theologian argued that the agency's ethical competence should be strengthened, for example through a permanent ethics commission. He also said the EU should address the contentious ies at the political level.

"Commercialization of human life"

According to Munich-based molecular biologist Ruth Tippe, the EPO has granted a total of 41 out of more than 300 patent applications on stem cells since 1990. Only in one case, namely that of the Bonn researcher Oliver Brustle, had the patent also extended to human embryonic stem cells. The other cases had been about adult or animal stem cells. Under the European Patent Convention, the use of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes is not patentable. If the Board of Appeal were to confirm the previous line of the EPO, "Greenpeace" said, limits would be set to the commercialization of human life. A case from 1999 shows how far-reaching such decisions are. At the time, he said, the EPO had cleared the way for patents on seeds and animals, even though this was prohibited by the wording of European patent laws. In the meantime, he said, there are already around 600 patents on plants and 300 on animals in Europe. "Greenpeace" demands renegotiation of EU patent laws. All patents on living beings and their genes would have to be banned. The commercialization of life is already far advanced, she said. There is a danger that human embryos will be cloned on an industrial scale in the future for economic reasons. The environmental organization has filed quite a few appeals with the EPO against patents on life in recent years. In several cases, patents were subsequently restricted again if they covered human cell material.

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