The patenting of a mouse genetically engineered to develop cancer will be contested in the European Patent Office next week by 17 groups including a United Kingdom coalition of animal welfare campaigners.
The hearing has been condemned by scientists and research funders who say it is inappropriate for the ethical question of the patenting of animal life to be decided by a group of patent lawyers.
The public hearing, which starts on November 21, follows the granting of a patent for the oncomouse, and any other animal in which a cancer gene is inserted, to Harvard University in 1992. Compassion in World Farming and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection are formally opposing the patent, a process which can lead to its being revoked.
The UK groups' argument is that the patent violates article 53a of the European Patent Convention, which prohibits the patenting of an invention contrary to morality.
David Owen, director of industrial collaboration and licensing at the Medical Research Council, said: "The patent agents are not the judges of the world's morality. They are no more or less equipped to judge these things than you or I."
Others said that the "morality" clause applies to questions such as whether to patent an improved letter bomb, an example given in EPO guidelines.
But Peter Stevenson, political and legal director of Compassion in World Farming, said: "This is a coded way of saying 'stop bothering us with the ethics and let us get on with what we want to do'. Biotechnologists like to think that morality is to do with sex and letter bombs. Our news is that it is wider than that."
He pointed out that the EPO's ruling was based on a weighing up of animal suffering versus benefits to mankind. "We say that they didn't weigh properly the intense suffering of animals."
David Shapiro, of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, suggested that an ethical committee be formed to advise the EPO on "public morality". "There's an argument for changing the governing body of the EPO which simply consists of the heads of the patent offices of European member states."
Dr Owen said that the proper arena for moral decisions over transgenic animals was the Home Office. "It has very, very powerful penalties if it finds that people are acting inappropriately. The overwhelming majority of scientists and funders are very professional people who are not afraid to say 'no' if they feel the research is not appropriate."