Unfortunately when we try to apply concepts of intellectual property - developed in the 19th century for dealing with inventions of an inanimate nature - to a new technology capable of redesigning genetic structures, it becomes impossible to avoid these questions. The European Patent Office itself discovered this when it came to adjudicate on the 'Oncomouse'.
Although the need to regulate biotechnology raises wider questions than those directly concerning patenting, those ethical issues that arise from patent applications themselves, such as encouraging increased use of and suffering to animals in research programmes, should surely be addressed by the patent system itself.
The grant of a patent for the genetic engineering of a living being gives powers of ownership fundamentally different from those applying to domestic, laboratory or farm animals. The patent gives monopoly control over the DNA 'blueprint', which can be altered far beyond conventional bounds to create unnatural characteristics such as predisposition to cancer or grossly exaggerated growth patterns in whole generations of such animals. It must surely be right that any extension of the patent law to allow such powers should also set the limits on what is and is not morally acceptable.
Patents are a wholly inappropriate system for dealing with the commercialisation of biotechnical matter. We would like to see a moratorium on the grant of such patents until other forms of industrial property protection are explored and until there has been a wider public debate on the implications of claims to have 'invented' life.
The Genetics Forum
21 JanuaryReuse content