An unprecedented hearing on whether a living animal can be patented, making it an invention created by human ingenuity rather than a natural life form, will open in Munich tomorrow.
Religious and animal welfare groups from across Europe will try to persuade officials of the European Patent Office not to grant a patent to Harvard University. The university's scientists have genetically engineered a laboratory mouse by stitching cancer-causing genes into its DNA so the animal is predisposed to develop tumours and die of cancer. Harvard wants exclusive rights to profit from its technology by marketing the animals for medical research, and will put its case to officials of the patent office in a hearing expected to last three days.
What the university is doing "is more than playing God," according to the Rev Andrew Linzey, of Mansfield College, Oxford. "Being God means being the originator, the owner of what is created," Professor Lin-zey said, and patenting, which confers intellectual rights over a human invention, "usurps the prerogative of God" when applied to a living animal.
Malcolm Eames, of the UK Genetics Forum, warned the patent could open the way to yet more intensive factory farming with genetically engineered chickens, cows and sheep. "We regard attempts to patent animals and plants as immoral and contrary to Article 53a of the European Patent Convention [prohibiting those whose publication and exploitation would be contrary to morality or public order]." He called for a "declaration of principles outlawing patents on plants, animals, and human genetic material".
Professor Linzey added: "Genetic engineering supersedes intensive farming. The point is designing animals from embryo to the the dinner plate. If they suffer, then the genetic engineers can say, 'we'll take out the stress gene'."
Of mice and men, Section Two