Monday, February 14, 2005
Patent attempted for human and ape lab chimera
A New York scientist's seven-year effort to win a patent on a laboratory-conceived creature that is part human and part animal ended in failure Friday, closing a historic and somewhat ghoulish chapter in American intellectual-property law.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected the claim, saying the hybrid, designed for use in medical research but not yet created, would be too closely related to a human to be patentable.
Paradoxically, the rejection was a victory of sorts for the inventor, Stuart Newman of New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y. An opponent of patents on living things, he had no intention of making the creatures. His goal was to set a legal precedent that would keep others from profiting from any similar "inventions."
But in an age when science is increasingly melding human and animal components for research - already the government has allowed many patents on "humanized" animals, including a mouse with a human immune system - the decision leaves a crucial question unanswered: At what point is something too human to patent?
Officials said it was not so difficult to make the call this time because Newman's technique could easily have created something that was much more person than not. But newer methods are allowing scientists to fine-tune those percentages, putting the patent office in an awkward position of being the federal arbiter of what is human.
The Newman case reveals how far U.S. intellectual-property law has lagged behind the art and science of biotechnology. The Supreme Court has addressed the issue of patenting life only once, and that was 25 years ago.
It also raises profound questions about the differences - and similarities - between humans and other animals, and the limits of treating animals as property.
"The whole privatization of the biological world has to be looked at," Newman said, "so we don't suddenly all find ourselves in the position of saying, 'How did we get here? Everything is owned."'
Newman's application, filed in 1997, described a technique for combining human embryo cells with cells from the embryo of a monkey, ape or other animal to create a blend of the two - what scientists call a chimera. That's the Greek term for the mythological creature that had a lion's head, a goat's body and a serpent's tail.
Posted by C. at 1:37 PM