Medical Research Council reconfirms investment in stem cell research
9 November 2011
The Medical Research Council (MRC) has reconfirmed its commitment to invest £130m over four years in stem cell and regenerative medicine research in the wake of the recent high profile ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) banning the patenting of inventions involving human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).
The implications of the European court ruling, made on 18 October, will not be fully apparent until the government, industry and the academic community have had time to make an assessment. However, the ruling has already raised concerns that the inability to patent discoveries will deter inward investment in research and development from the commercial sector. The judgement does not have any impact on the ability to undertake hESC research in the UK.
The MRC acknowledges the challenges the ruling could bring to those working in the field of regenerative medicine and, in an effort to help maintain a positive outlook, has reconfirmed its planned £130m investment in this area of research. The funding will promote the application of stem cell and related technologies for regenerative medicine over the next four years and help ensure that the UK remains a world leader in this area of research.
MRC chief executive, Professor Sir John Savill, said:
“We are fully committed to maintaining the UK’s position as a world leader in stem cell research and will continue to invest in this important area. I am confident that future successes in this area, underpinned by public sector investment from organisations like the MRC, will in time provide the gateway essential for future commercial investment and development in regenerative medicine.
“In the meantime, the MRC will continue to work with government and the wider research community to understand the full implications of this ban and to adapt to face the challenges this ruling will bring.”
Dr Rob Buckle, Head of Regenerative Medicine at the Medical Research Council, said:
“Concerns surrounding the future of private sector investment in stem cell research are valid. Venture capitalists in particular are likely to be discouraged by the ruling, which is important since the development of stem cell technologies is being driven by small and medium-sized companies. However, while patents do play an important role in protecting commercial interests, the route to commercial return through licensing deals in this area may be less reliant on them, and alternative approaches are possible. For example, the scientific ‘know how’ involved in the complex development process for stem cell therapies already provides a natural deterrent against potential competitors trying to enter the field.”
“What is important is that scientists continue to focus on how they can demonstrate proof-of-concept for stem cell based products in the clinic, as it is this, rather than the promise of short-lived patent protection, that will entice investors in the long-run.”
The ruling follows a challenge by Greenpeace to a patent filed by German scientist Professor Oliver Brüstle in 1997 to protect a line of cells he developed to treat nervous system defects. The decision by the court is binding and the UK cannot appeal the decision.
The ruling applies only to the patentability of hESC lines and associated processes, and will have no immediate impact on the regulatory framework in the UK. Other forms of stem cells – including adult and fetal cells - are also unaffected by the ruling and can move forward as before. However, it is the MRC’s view that hESC research must continue alongside these alternatives, given the fact that integrating knowledge gained across the various forms of stem cell research accelerates progress in the area, and most importantly that hESC-derived therapies are now at the stage of readiness to enter early-stage clinical trials.