Banding Against Umbilical-Cord Patent

LONDON--An alliance of researchers and lobbyists this week filed two objections to a European patent granted to a U.S. company for the extraction and use of blood stem cells from human umbilical cords. The groups argue that the patent could hinder gene-therapy research and bone-marrow transplantation. "The consequences of this in medical research and treatment are immense," the objectors say in a statement announcing their action. The groups' move could also be an opening shot in the coming war over biotech patents as the European Parliament prepares to debate a new directive on the issue.

The European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich, Germany, granted Biocyte Corp. of New York a patent last May covering the extraction and deep-freezing of cord blood cells and their use for clinical and research purposes. Cord cells are highly sought after because they provoke fewer immune reactions than adult cells do and could be used to regenerate bone marrow. One of the two objections to the patent filed with the EPO came from the European Research Project on Cord Blood Transplantation (Eurocord), a European Union-funded program. Eurocord said in a statement: "We deplore any attempt to patent a nonpharmacological method of treating patients with hematological diseases and recommend that clinicians and scientists dissociate themselves from patents of this type."

Eurocord's action was backed by a second objection from an alliance of more than 30 groups of researchers, environmentalists, and ethical bodies, coordinated by the Austrian environmental group Global 2000. The alliance is concerned that the patent's holders could charge fees and refuse the use of these blood cells or the techniques to anyone unwilling or unable to pay them. "We argue that [the patent] lacks the necessary inventive step and novelty," says Global 2000 spokesperson Thomas Schweiger. "But patents of this kind are also fundamentally immoral and against the public order, which is also an acceptable basis for objection."

The alliance's moral challenge also heralds a broader battle as the European Parliament discusses later this year its planned Biotechnology Patent Directive, which is designed to provide a legislative framework for what kinds of biotech inventions will be patentable in Europe. "In the present form of the new directive, such moral objections would no longer be possible," Schweiger says. "Without such objections, health systems and consequently patients will be dependent on the good will and policy of companies."