(A microscopic view shows a colony of human embryonic stem cells (light blue) growing on fibroblasts (dark blue) in this handout photo released to Reuters by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, March 9, 2009/Alan Trounson/California Institute for Regenerative Medicine)

Europe’s top court has banned patenting any stem-cell process that involves destroying a human embryo, dealing what some scientists said was a “devastating” blow to an emerging field of medical research. Researchers fear the ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will hobble development in an area of science that could provide a range 21st-century medicines for diseases from Parkinson’s to blindness.

Stem-cell technology is controversial because some cell lines are derived from embryos. The ECJ decision now endorses widespread protection of human embryos by blocking patents. “A process which involves removal of a stem cell from a human embryo at the blastocyst stage, entailing the destruction of that embryo, cannot be patented,” it said. Blastocyst is the stage just before implantation in the womb, when the embryo consists of around 80 to 100 cells.

Christian groups in Europe welcomed the decision. The European Centre for Law and Justice in Strasbourg said it said “protects life and human dignity” at all stages of development. The Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford called it “a triumph of ethical standards over commercial interest.”

COMECE, the commission of Roman Catholic bishops conferences in the European Union, said the decision “provides a broad, scientific sound definition of a human embryo.  Indeed, fertilization marks the beginning of the biological existence of a human being that undergoes a process of development. Therefore the human embryo, at every stage of development, must be considered a human being with potential, and not just a ‘potential human being’.”