Guest Post by Thomas Leonard of Kilburn & Strode LLP, London
The Advocate General of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has issued his opinion in C-364/131, and in doing so has provided hope for the patentability of embryonic stem cells in Europe.
International Stem Cell Corporation (ISCC) is the applicant for two UK patent applications (GB0621068.6 and GB0621069.4) relating to stem cells derived from unfertilised human ova that have been parthenogenetically activated to stimulate cell division (“parthenotes”). The UK Intellectual Property Office (UK IPO) refused the applications on the basis that, given the CJEU’s earlier judgment in Brüstle2, the claimed subject matter related to the use of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes and was therefore not patentable.
The Court in Brüstle was concerned with the definition of the term “human embryo” within the meaning of Article 6(2)(c) of Directive 98/44/EC (the “Biotech Directive”), which states that inventions shall be considered unpatentable where they relate to uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes. The Court in Brüstle ruled that the term “human embryo” included unfertilised human ova whose division and further development have been stimulated by parthenogenesis (i.e. parthenotes).
Following the UK IPO’s decision to refuse the applications, the matter was appealed to the High Court. At request of the parties, a question was referred to the CJEU seeking clarification on whether parthenotes can correctly be considered “human embryos” considering they die at the blastoma stage, unable to undergo further division and development, and are thus not capable of developing into a human being. The question referred in this case was exactly the same as one asked in Brüstle but for the additional specification that parthenotes “in contrast to fertilised ova, contain only pluripotent cells and are incapable of developing into human beings”.
The Advocate General Opinion in C-364/13
The new Opinion includes a detailed analysis of the relevant law and background, as well as the submissions of the parties (not only those of the applicant and the UK, but also written observations by France, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and the European Commission).
Among the submissions included evidence suggesting it is possible to produce live-born parthenogenetic mice that have been genetically manipulated to surmount the “genetic imprinting” that usually prevents a parthenote from continuing development past the blastoma stage. ISCC had already amended their claims before the UK IPO to exclude the possibility of extensive genetic manipulation beyond parthenogenesis (by including the word “pluripotent” before “human stem cell line” and referring to a lack of “paternal imprinting”).
The Advocate General in principle agrees with ISCC and has come to the conclusion that unfertilised human ova whose division and further development have been stimulated by parthenogenesis are not included in the term ‘human embryos’ as long as they are not capable of developing into a human being and have not been genetically manipulated to acquire such a capacity.
The 4 things you need to know
1. This is good news for applicants in the stem cell field. Any judgments that limit the impact of Brüstle will be a welcome development.
2. The Opinion is not legally binding – yet. For the most part, subsequent CJEU judgments do come to the same result as the preceding Opinion (although perhaps for different reasons), but we need to wait for the final judgment of the CJEU before this will become law.
3. The ray of hope only applies to stem cells derived from parthenotes that are explicitly not able to continue the developmental process to form a human being. When drafting applications in this field, practitioners should include language that supports an amendment to exclude the possibility of further genetic manipulation, bearing in mind of course the EPO’s strict rules with respect to amendments.
4. Remember, in contrast to the US following the judgment in Myriad, it is enshrined in European law that elements isolated from the human body or otherwise produced by means of a technical process, including the sequence or partial sequence of a gene, may constitute a patentable invention, even if the structure of that element is identical to that of a natural element (Article 5(2) of the Biotech Directive).
Kilburn & Strode partner Nick Bassil is part of the team handling the UK patent applications on behalf of ISCC before the UK IPO. ISCC was represented before the UK High Court and CJEU by Piers Acland, QC on instructions from DLA Piper LLP.
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1 Opinion of Advocate General Cruz Villalón in International Stem Cell Corporation, delivered on 17 July 2014, C-364/13, ECLI:EU:C:2014:2104 (here)
2 Judgment in Brüstle v Greenpeace eV, C-34/10, EU:C:2011:669 (here)