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Patents are crucial to embryonic stem cell research, scientist says

Patents offer the economic guarantees scientists and companies need to develop new treatments, Oliver Bruestle told Deutsche Welle. He's at the center of a German court battle surrounding embryonic stem cell research.

Needle being inserted into a cell

Embryonic stem cell research is tightly regulated in Germany

Oliver Bruestle, director of the Institute of Reconstructive Neurobiology at the University of Bonn, is pushing for Germany to recognize the right to patent procedures conducted on embryonic stem cells, saying patents are the right way to ensure that scientists and companies profit from their work.

Greenpeace, however, is opposed to the patents. The organization filed suit against a patent granted to Bruestle in 1999, saying that the patenting of embryonic stem cell research could lead to an "embryo industry."

Germany's highest court did not rule on the case last week, instead passing the issue on to the European Court of Justice for a decision.

Bruestle talked to Deutsche Welle about the necessity of patents in advancing medical research.

Deutsche Welle: In neighboring countries like Great Britain, Spain and Sweden, the process is very open. Why do you need a patent in Germany?

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Oliver Bruestle: We need patents to make use of academic developments. Usually universities or other academic institutions only go so far. They develop certain procedures which can be useful for biomedicine, but then it really takes companies and an industrial complex to move these developments into application.

Whether it's cell therapies, pharmaceutical developments or vaccinations, universities don't have the resources to do this. It's not their job and they don't have the experience. They need industrial partners, but industrial partners need to see patents. They want to make sure that if they invest money in a certain development that they have for some time the right to use this exclusively and protect it from their competitors.

There is obviously a lot of hope and hype attached to embryonic stem cell research. Some people imagine a world full of bionic limbs and clones. Is that where the research is headed?

Stem cell research has huge potential for biomedicine mainly because there's an opportunity to generate essentially every single type of body cell and every single type of tissue artificially in a cell culture lab. This is particularly relevant for organs which have lost their capacity for regeneration. That's true for the nervous system and the heart as well as for insulin-producing cells. For these tissues, embryonic stem cell lines, which are really the entry point of the patent and procedure, provide a limitless source of cells. We can use these cells to generate insulin-producing cells, heart cells and brain cells in limitless numbers in a cell culture dish.

There's also a lot of fear for people who envision a world full of bionic limbs and organs and clones. Is there potential for this to get out of hand?

Oliver Bruestle in front of an incubator full of culture dishes

Bruestle is one of Germany's leading stem cell researchers

There are quite a few misconceptions in the field. For example, we get confronted with accusations that we do research on embryos. This is, in fact, not true. The way the research is done is that there is a possibility to derive what we call embryonic stem cell lines from oocytes, which have been fertilized during artificial insemination or during fertility treatments which are left over and frozen and which are otherwise thrown away in large numbers. There is an opportunity to use these cells with consent of the parents to derive embryonic stem cell lines and the very special things about these stem cell lines is once they are derived they can be multiplied indefinitely. We can grow them for years, we can freeze them, we can thaw them and they have the remarkable potential that they can be turned into any type of cell in our body.

This field needs a very clear and tight regulation. We certainly have such a situation in Germany. We have one of the toughest embryo protection acts in the world, which essentially prohibits any procedure which is not to the benefit of the embryo. That's the reason why in Germany we cannot derive embryonic stem cells from fertilized oocytes, which can be done in many other countries.

It's been assumed that neurons and brain cells are limited. Is this assumption going to need to be changed?

The nervous system, unfortunately, has lost most of its regenerative potential. Neuron s - for example, nerve cells - are lost every day. We lose about 85,000 neurons every day and they are not replaced. We know there are two regions in the adult brain which still show limited formation of new neurons. But these regions are very circumscribed. They are evolutionary old areas and we don't now if we can make use of these areas to generate neurons to stimulate the brain to generate neurons and have the neurons migrate to other places. But this is a field of research that is being pursued.

Cultures in a lab

Proponents say stem cell therapies could help sufferers of neurodegenerative diseases

The other possibility, which we are focusing on, is the idea of introducing new cells into the nervous system - transplant cells which mature into neurons and into nerve cells which replace nerve cells lost during Parkinson's or Huntington's disease or other diseases.

What other possibilities does stem cell research offer that could improve people's lives?

The prime candidates for stem cell therapies in the nervous system are diseases which lead to a loss of nerve cells or other cells in defined areas. For example, Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease are diseases where we see the loss of very specific types of nerve cells in very specific areas. For replacement therapy, we know where to go and which cell type to put in.

This is different, for example, from Alzheimer's disease where we see the loss of various brands of neurons across large areas of the brain. Here it's much more difficult, but there are ways to bring stem cells to application. The idea is to not replace the cells but use them as a Trojan horse to bring in factors that help the neuron survive better in the context of a neuro-degenerative disease. This area is essentially a bridging point between gene therapy and cell therapy because the cells are used to bring in genetic information and help the tissue deal better with the individual disease.

Interview: Mark Mattox (vj/sms)

Editor: Kate Bowen