European Court approves patenting of embryonic stem cell technologies using unfertilised human ova

Under the Biotech directive, the use of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes cannot be patented on moral grounds. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has today ruled that human embryonic stem cell technologies based on unfertilised human ova stimulated by parthenogenesis (parthenotes) can be patented. 

In this decision, the CJEU has appreciated that parthenotes originate from unfertilised human ova, so should not be considered ‘human embryos’ – definedpreviously as anything capable of commencing the process of development of a human being. Previously, the court in Brustle had said that technologies involving parthenotes would necessarily entail the use and potential destruction of ‘human embryos’. Subsequent to that case, research has shown that some genes responsible for embryonic development can only come from the male, meaning that an unfertilised stimulated ova can never become a human, though it can be a source of stem cells.

Jason Rutt, Head of Patents at Rouse, said:

“This is a great decision. It walks a clear line to exclude the sci-fi horrors of the abuse of human embryos whilst allowing the use of techniques to generate stem cells which may alleviate much human misery. It’s good news for those affected by genetic disorders or needing transplants – just two of the areas of medicine that could benefit from the use of human embryonic stem cells. Because parthenotes are unfertilised ova, they can never become human beings, meaning that the moral difficulty about using human embryos for stem cell research is effectively sidestepped.

“This ruling is highly significant because it will broaden the range of technologies and treatments for which patent protection is available in Europe. It will be welcomed by the biotech sector and will help to incentivise further research in this important, and rapidly developing scientific arena.”