There is a good article in the latest issue of Pharmaceutical Technology Europe which explores the ever present debate around the use of human embryonic stem cells in medical research and the legal boundaries in different parts of the world. Whilst there are certainly many medical benefits that can arise from further research in these areas, there is still no general consensus on how such research should be funded or indeed commercialised following any successful findings.
The article summarises current legal standings around the globe, highlighting in particular the difference between European and US legislation, and I definitely recommend you read through it. Current moral debate tends to revolve around whether embryonic stem cells will prove more useful than adult stem cells, which do not require the destruction of a human embryo. Successful treatments have been developed from adult stem cell research, whereas embryonic stem cell research is yet to develop proven treatments – although there are a number of trials that have progressed recently, primarily because of the far stricter regulation surrounding such research.
Stem cell research in its various forms has the potential to improve the human condition a great deal, but there are still many ethical and moral questions that need to be asked. The moral debate often revolves around the definition of human individuality and whether or not embryos represent a particular human life. However, the aspect that I am particularly interested in are the ramifications of patenting such technology and the corporate ownership of medically beneficial procedures.
Many of the present patents surround methods through which to obtain stem cells, however there are increasing numbers of organisations wanting to patent particular therapies that have resulted from research. One major issue is that there are differing laws surrounding such patents, with European regulators being particularly against the idea. Detractors argue that such restrictions mean that research will not be conducted without commercial profitability, investments will not be made. But this can surely be overcome through tax-funded research, of which the Obama administration in the US seems intent on supporting given recent movements.
There is always something that just doesn’t sit right with me about corporate ownership of beneficial technologies. Profit can be made through the expertise needed to create and maintain such therapies, rather than in being the first to find such results. The need to license the right to use medical discoveries just creates a divide between those who can afford such added costs and those who cannot. This filters down to the individual level in that the therapies become more expensive and out of reach of many who may otherwise benefit greatly from them. The fact that these patents are not enforceable globally widens this divide further, with whole geographic regions suffering merely because of differences in patent law.
There is certainly a lot of money to be made, and this is why the patents are fought for at all. But what are we becoming as a society when even our medical research has dollar signs as one of its primary motivations? As we progress towards a global community such issues are only going to become more pronounced, which is why I am glad that there is continued focus on whether such advances should be patentable at all. It’s definitely a positive sign!
I hesitate slightly to ask…but what do you think of stem cell research, and should it be patentable?