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The Last Word
Stem cell patents hit the headlines
Emma Kemp, Information and Communications Manager at EuroStemCell writes about her experiences getting press coverage for stem cell patenting in 2011.
Stem cell research has received such a lot of media coverage in recent years that it would be easy to imagine the word ‘stem cell’ is a magic ticket to media headlines. But going beyond the promise of medical ‘breakthroughs’ to get coverage of the real meaning of recent discoveries can be challenging, and drumming up interest in complex policy issues even more so. This is the challenge we faced a few months ago when a legal case about the patenting of embryonic stem cell related discoveries reached the European Court of Justice.
I am part of a team of science communicators involved in EuroStemCell, a project that unites more than 90 European stem cell and regenerative medicine research labs in a coordinated effort to engage with the public about their science. Our mission is to help European citizens make sense of stem cells. So when leading stem cell scientists raised alarm bells about the impact of a possible ban on patents for techniques using human embryonic stem cells, we wanted to help get the debate into the public eye.
On 10 March 2011 the advocate-general of the European Court of Justice, Yves Bot, gave his opinion on a long-running legal debate about a patent filed several years ago in Germany. He took a very conservative position that suggested patenting of applications using embryonic stem cells should be prohibited in Europe on moral grounds. The judges of the Court were left to consider the verdict over the following months.
Meanwhile, a group of 13 leading scientists submitted an open letter to the journal Nature to voice their serious concerns about the direction the case was going in. EuroStemCell wanted to help take the discussion beyond the specialist Nature readership, but it was a tough sell: the issues were complex and the open letter was published the day before Kate and Wills tied the knot. Despite the poor timing, the story was covered by all the major press outlets, from the BBC to The Independent, Daily Mail and international press such as Reuters. This was thanks to a press briefing organized in collaboration with the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London. I am not a press officer so the SMC’s expertise and relationship with the press was invaluable. What we did have at EuroStemCell was access to the scientific community. Pulling the two things together created a great press briefing that unpacked the issues and gave journalists the opportunity to get views from five leading stem cell biologists.
Whilst all this was going on, we were gathering a variety of views and comments from scientists, ethicists and legal experts and providing a forum on our website for people to express their views. Over 500 people signed online to support the scientists’ open letter and we received comments from many members of the public. Then we had to wait. Several months later on 19 October, long after press interest had of course died down, the European Court of Justice announced its verdict: it had followed the Advocate General’s recommendation and ruled that no patents can be granted for inventions based on embryonic stem cells. It was the exact opposite of what many in the scientific community had hoped for. This time we did not need a physical press briefing, we’d already laid the ground work with the help of the SMC in April. We gathered responses from a number of scientists and the Science Media Centre distributed the comments by email to journalists. The story hit the headlines again and generated wide-ranging debate.
This process was a learning curve for me but I think it shows us something important: media coverage of biomedical science does not have to be restricted to headlines about cures just over the horizon – there is room to tell the wider world about the issues around the science too.
Information and Communications Manager
EuroStemCell: Europe’s stem cell hub