The coalition of 25 animal welfare groups from 12 European countries yesterday launched a campaign to oppose the first European patent on a living animal. Harvard University was granted a provisional patent by the European Patent Office (EPO) in May last year for its 'Oncomouse' - a creature genetically engineered to contract cancer.
Yesterday, one month before the deadline for opposing the decision, the animal welfare groups submitted detailed legal arguments to the EPO that, because the European Patent Convention expressly prohibits any action that would be 'contrary to morality', the mouse could not be patented.
The patent is sweeping and would apply to dogs, rabbits or chimpanzees whose genes had similarly been manipulated. The coalition argues that 'the public would not readily accept the morality of genetically engineering a primate or a dog so that it should develop cancer'.
Joyce D'Silva, director of Compassion in World Farming, one of the British groups leading the campaign, warned that patent applications are pending for farm animals, including a transgenic chicken given the gene which produces growth hormone in cattle. Such chickens would grow faster and produce leaner meat.
Ms D'Silva said that legislation had created a 'duty of care' for all animal owners - no one legally can be deliberately cruel to an animal. However, the EPO's decision 'has enshrined a new form of animal ownership which carries no duty of care', she said. Instead, the Oncomouse was created in order to suffer.
The opposition groups also question just how well the EPO has assessed the usefulness of the patent. They argue that, increasingly, scientists are conducting cancer research using cells cultured in the laboratory and that to promote animal research would be a retrograde step.
In addition they say the patent is irreligious: humanity cannot claim to have 'invented' an animal; it is God who creates life.
Professor Sir David Weatherall, professor of clinical medicine at Oxford University, has already criticised the Oncomouse patent. In the textbook The New Genetics and Clinical Practice he warns that the public may reject the benefits of the new techniques.