Patents are crucial to embryonic stem cell research, scientist says

(Stem Cells News image)

Patents offer the economic guarantees scientists and companies need to develop new treatments, Oliver Bruestle told Deutsche Welle. He’s at the center of a German court battle surrounding embryonic stem cell research

Oliver Bruestle, director of the Institute of Reconstructive Neurobiology at the University of Bonn, is pushing for Germany to recognize the right to patent procedures conducted on embryonic stem cells, saying patents are the right way to ensure that scientists and companies profit from their work.

Greenpeace, however, is opposed to the patents. The organization filed suit against a patent granted to Bruestle in 1999, saying that the patenting of embryonic stem cell research could lead to an “embryo industry.” (…)

There is obviously a lot of hope and hype attached to embryonic stem cell research. Some people imagine a world full of bionic limbs and clones. Is that where the research is headed?

Stem cell research has huge potential for biomedicine mainly because there’s an opportunity to generate essentially every single type of body cell and every single type of tissue artificially in a cell culture lab. This is particularly relevant for organs which have lost their capacity for regeneration. That’s true for the nervous system and the heart as well as for insulin-producing cells. For these tissues, embryonic stem cell lines, which are really the entry point of the patent and procedure, provide a limitless source of cells. We can use these cells to generate insulin-producing cells, heart cells and brain cells in limitless numbers in a cell culture dish (…)

There’s also a lot of fear for people who envision a world full of bionic limbs and organs and clones. Is there potential for this to get out of hand?

There are quite a few misconceptions in the field. For example, we get confronted with accusations that we do research on embryos. This is, in fact, not true. The way the research is done is that there is a possibility to derive what we call embryonic stem cell lines from oocytes, which have been fertilized during artificial insemination or during fertility treatments which are left over and frozen and which are otherwise thrown away in large numbers.

There is an opportunity to use these cells with consent of the parents to derive embryonic stem cell lines and the very special things about these stem cell lines is once they are derived they can be multiplied indefinitely. We can grow them for years, we can freeze them, we can thaw them and they have the remarkable potential that they can be turned into any type of cell in our body.

This field needs a very clear and tight regulation. We certainly have such a situation in Germany. We have one of the toughest embryo protection acts in the world, which essentially prohibits any procedure which is not to the benefit of the embryo. That’s the reason why in Germany we cannot derive embryonic stem cells from fertilized oocytes, which can be done in many other countries (…)

What other possibilities does stem cell research offer that could improve people’s lives?

The prime candidates for stem cell therapies in the nervous system are diseases which lead to a loss of nerve cells or other cells in defined areas. For example, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease are diseases where we see the loss of very specific types of nerve cells in very specific areas. For replacement therapy, we know where to go and which cell type to put in (…)


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