Patent battle over life

October 26, 1995

Academics have joined a campaign against the patenting of life forms in the lead up to two important European decisions on patents.

The campaign, run by the Genetics Forum, involves the signing of a declaration of principles, which opposes the patenting of life forms on the grounds that it is contrary to public morality. "Life forms" include humans and animals and their parts or tissues; plants, seeds and plant tissue; and processes for genetically modifying human matter.

Academic signatories include Andrew Linzey, a specialist in theology and animal welfare at Mansfield College, Oxford, Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, and Mark Williamson, professor at the University of York (who supports all but the "processes" clause).

The declaration precedes a European Patent Office hearing on the controversial oncomouse, which could be a test case for the patenting of animal life. The mouse, genetically engineered to develop cancer, is subject to a patent in the United States held by Harvard University.

The European Patent Office initially rejected the application but then decided to grant a patent on the grounds that the human benefits outweigh the harm to the mice. But the office is to hold a public hearing on opposition to the patent on November 21. There are about 40 other applications on file waiting for the oncomouse result.

Meanwhile, a European Commission draft directive on biotechnology patents, which was defeated earlier this year by the European parliament, is soon to be relaunched.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, who has signed the declaration, said that many academics were losing sight of "the fundamental moral, social and political issues. Patenting raises a new level of concern that the liberal humanitarian ethos of academic research is being driven into naked commercialism."

Decisions on genetically engineered foods, for example, are made by "government and a few rent-a-professors," he said.

The declaration of principles does not include any alternative to patenting life forms. Professor Lang dismissed the criticism that if Europe abandoned patents then other countries would reap the commercial benefit, saying that there was similar sentiment against patenting all over the world.

Steve Emmott, of the Genetics Forum, said: "If a patent regulation in Europe was different from the regulation in the US then an American patent could not run here."

He said that alternatives to patents could include other, milder forms of rights.

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