It is almost two months to the day since Europe’s highest court banned the commercial patenting of stem cells involving the destruction of embryos.

The original case was brought by Greenpeace in Germany, with the backing of a medical association. Since then, some press articles have painted a confusing picture of what the ruling means for the development of important medical cures. On 14 December, the journal Nature reported that the court had exceeded its competency and, with a “clumsy ruling”, created difficulties for medical researchers. The issue is less clear cut that Nature makes out.

A scientist at work at the Greenpeace research laboratories at Exeter University, in the United Kingdom.

On the one hand, patents can be a safeguard to those investing in cures. They are not the only tool available, as trade secrets can be maintained without them. But on the other hand, patents are an iron wall denying breakthroughs to the overwhelming majority of researchers looking for the same cures but without privileged access. Many will be publically funded researchers who would then be forced to spend taxpayers’ money buying access to data. A patent would create obstacles to their progress. There can be no standing on the shoulders of giants if the giants in question throw up a legal wall around their findings.

Scientists themselves hotly debate whether patents help or hinder research into important medical cures. Responding to the ruling, Dr. Ingrid Schneider, a senior researcher in the Research Group Medicine and Neurosciences at the University of Hamburg said:

“The [ECJ] ruling is good for research, as it assures researchers' freedom to operate, without having to navigate patent thickets, and neither having to fear "innocent" nor "wilful" infringement of patents owned by other researchers… Moreover, human embryonic stem cell research by and large is still basic research, and it does not make a lot of sense to have patents in basis research, as broad, unrestricted, universal sharing of elementary knowledge and skills is essential for the advancement of science.”

It is clear that not all in the medical research industry oppose the court’s decision. Patents are not vital for research and the legal clarity provided by the ruling will actually help investment decisions. Furthermore, researchers are not blocked from winning patents on existing alternative methods to develop stem cells. Robert Lanza, a leading stem cell researcher at the Advanced Cell Technology in California, recently gained a patent for an “embryo-safe” process.

Greenpeace first brought to public attention a patent on human embryos over ten years ago. In 2006, the European Patent Office stopped the patenting of human embryonic stem cells because patents on the commercial use of human embryos are explicitly banned under European law. The recent European Court of Justice confirmed this ruling.

Greenpeace started its legal case because of its concern about commercialisation of life. We have been especially active against patents on plants and seeds because these allow the creation of monopolies that attempt to control what farmers grow and ultimately what we all eat.

The patenting of life increases the corporate control of medical research. This is bad news for science.

Marco Contiero - Greenpeace EU agriculture policy director