'Onco-mouse' spreads confusion in patent office

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The Independent Online

Science Editor

The public hearing to decide whether it is possible to patent a genetically engineered mouse broke up in confusion yesterday, with no decision being reached.

However, officials of the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich have told Harvard University to redraft the terms of its patent concerning a mouse which had been genetically engineered to develop cancer.

The hearing, which began on Tuesday and ran late into the evenings, ended abruptly yesterday morning, with the four EPO officials gathering their papers and leaving the room.

They refused to hear protests from the British barrister, Daniel Alexander, at the hearing's premature termination. However, they did say that opposition could be made in writing rather than orally to a tribunal.

Peter Stevenson, from Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), which has co- ordinated opposition to the patent in the United Kingdom, said: "I think we made great headway although I would not like to guess at the final outcome."

The original patent covered not just mice but any non-human mammal with an inserted oncogene (cancer-causing gene). It now appears likely that the patent, if allowed at all, will be restricted so as to exclude possible onco-rabbits, onco-dogs, or onco-monkeys.

The opposition, from religious groups and animal welfare organisations, centred on moral and legal objections to the idea that a living animal could be classified as an "invention" and thus patented, rather than as a "product of nature", and unpatentable.

CIWF and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection also claimed it was immoral to patent an animal brought into existence specifically to develop painful lethal disease. Article 53a of the European Patent Convention prohibits patents whose exploitation would be contrary to morality.