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Can Life be Patented?

A Controversial Ethical Question on Patenting "Animal-Human Hybrids" Deepens the Debate on Bioethics

By John Mallon

On June 18, 1999 the United States Patent and Trademark Office rejected an attempt by two activists who sought to patent a technique for creating animal-human hybrids. According to a Reuters report citing Fox News as its source, on that date, this rejection was deemed a victory by the activists. Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and New York biology professor Stuart Newman said they submitted the application as a demonstration and never planned to make a half-human, half animal creature and called the rejection a victory for their cause.

They said in a statement, "The landmark ruling puts in jeopardy scores of previously granted patents on animal inventions which contain human genes and other biological information in their genetic makeup."

According to Reuters, Rifkin, a writer and economist who has been battling against the granting of patents on living things, and Newman who helped found the Council for Responsible Genetics said when they filed the patent application the year before it was for the purpose of creating debate on the issue.

Reuters reported, "They also hoped to block research that involves making cross-specicies animals, known technically as chimeras. They said they had hoped that by owning a patent on it, they could stop researchers from using the technique. But according to their statement, the Patent Office said it could not issue a patent embracing human beings.

"Rifkin and Newman argue that it already has. Mice, rabbits, sheep and cows have been genetically engineered to carry human genes for making products ranging from alpha 1-anti-trypsin, used to treat cystic fibrosis, to lactoferrin, which can boost the immune system. Many have been patented, although they usually only carry one or a few human genes, making them at the most only a fraction of a percent human.

"Now Rifkin and Newman said they plan to appeal the decision. They say they want to force Congress and the courts to take another look at the policy of granting patents on life forms."

In their statement, Rifkin and Newman said, "The question of how much human genetic information may be included in a genetically modified animal and still be granted a patent will be of increasing commercial, legal and political interest in the months and years ahead as life science companies seek patents on a range of genetically modified research animals and cloned animals," they said.

"The PTO (Patent and Trademark Office) has presented no criteria that can distinguish a human from a non-human organism," Newman said in the statement. "The logical conclusion of their response to us is that no organisms should be patented."

In 1987 the PTO ruled that all living things can be patented except human beings, because of the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery. 

However on November 26 2000, The Observer newspaper of London reported a story by Public Affairs Editor, Antony Barnet stating that an Australian biotech company, Amrad,  had taken out a Europe-wide patent on a process which campaigners claimed would allow "chimeric" animals to be developed with body parts originating from humans. The patent, granted in 1999 covers embryos containing cells from both humans and from "mice, sheep, pigs cattle, goats and fish."

The Observer said that details in the patent didn't make it clear what use these mixed species embryos would be put to, but that experts believed the potential is there to create a hybrid creature, and quoted Dr. Sue Mayer, director of Genewatch as saying, "The company is saying that it wants a patent on a process which could produce chimeric animals using cells from a whole range of species including humans. Many people will find the thought abhorrent."

The Observer quoted an unnamed spokesman for the Catholic Church as saying, "To patent a process where human life is used as a kind of bank to deposit into animals is morally indefensible." and the paper reported that "Church groups have already reacted with outrage, denouncing the patent as 'morally offensive.' " They also quoted Dr. Donald Bruce, a spokesman for the European churches on bioethics: "This patent should never have been passed. If people are talking about using human cells in animals, that is completely unacceptable."

The newspaper said that in October of 2000, "The European Patent Office claimed it would never grant a patent on mixed-species embryos as they are considered against 'public order and morality'. But this patent, discovered by a researcher in [the environmental group] Greenpeace's German office, was taken out in January of 1999 and has since been sold to the US company Chemicon International.

Thomas Schweiger of Greenpeace called on the European Patent Office to withdraw it. He said, 'The chimeras may be non-human but they contain human organs, body parts nerve cells and even human genetic codes. The company does not give concrete medical uses and obviously intended to give the company broad monopoly rights on the process and chimeric creatures.' "

The Observer says that Sweiger believes that one possible use might be to grow human organs in animals for transplantation.

According to the patent the chimera-creating process starts by isolating a special hormone, the objective of which is to stimulate the growth of cells; known as stem cells. The Observer continues that these stem cells are the "master cells" which could in theory be used to produce virtually any type of replacement tissue for a damaged body.

John Grace, Amrad chief executive denied his company had ever conducted research in this field and said the patent would not be used to create animals with human cells. he said the process was mainly used to produce genetically engineered mice for research.