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Animal patent report lacks support.

Animal patent report lacks support

Last April, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that genetically engineered animals may be patented as "compositions of matter," triggering a heated debate over the economic and ethical implications of private ownership of genetic traits. In response to the ruling, members of the House and Senate introduced bills to put a two-year moratorium on the granting of such patents, and a House subcommittee solicited testimony from more than 30 expert witnesses (SN: 8/1/87, p.69).

Last week, with moratorium legislation still pending, the House Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties and the Administration of a draft report summarizing nearly a year of congressional fact-finding The controversial report, written by the staff of the subcommittee's chairman, Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), concludes that a moratorium on animal patents would be "unwise and unnecessary." Indeed, it says, farmers and others should expect to pay royalties for the use of genetically engineered animals, and perhaps for any offspring they produce.

The subcommittee postponed discussion of the 225-page report at the last minute, apparently because some ranking members found its conclusions unacceptable. Some staff say the report appears dead. The stalemate, which features an unusual alliance of farmers and animal rights activists, is evidence of the political, economic and moral complexity of the animal patent issue.

"I think there's a lot of people for a lot of different reasons who think that maybe we are moving much too quickly into an uncharted area," says Howard Lyman, a consultant for the National Farmers Union, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports a moratorium on animal patenting. "I would not be a bit surprised if some members of the committee who support the moratorium bill will now move for action on that."

A spokesperson for Kastenmeier denies the report is dead, saying, "Members haven't had time to carefully review the draft, so it was put off." But several sources familiar with the report's release told SCIENCE NEWS that discussion was canceled when it became clear that there was insufficient subcommittee support for its conclusions. "I don't think the report is going to be brought up again," says one congressional aide. "It got brought up all of a sudden and it got dropped all of a sudden." In any case critics say, the report leaves unresolved a number of questions.

"I see (the report) as a mass of obfuscation and an attempt to open the door for the biotechnology industry prematurely," says Michael Fox, scientific adviser to the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States, which supports a moratorium. "It says that animals have been improved through genetic manipulation. Well, that's not the complete story."

Fox says researchers are not only perfecting ways of engineering healthier animals, but also developing for research purposes animals with a variety of painful diseases. In addition, opponents of animal patents have expressed concern that such patents may result in an extraordinary concentration of economic power among a few corporations. The report counters that a patent only precludes others from taking advantage of a proprietary technology, without necessarily condoning its use. It contends that such concerns can be dealt with by current animal care guidelines and by appropriate regulatory agencies.

The report does recommend minor legislative amendments to current patent law, including a special exemption that would allow small farmers to breed patented animals for their own use without liability. That exemption has the support of some farm groups, including the Washington, D.C.-based American Farm Bureau Federation, which opposes a moratorium. Others, however, note that nowhere in the report are "small farmers" defined.

Overall, the report argues, "adoption of a moratorium would stifle -- if not extinguish -- important innovations in medical research and agriculture without justification." It says that without the 17-year guarantee of exclusive rights conferred by a patent, companies would lose incentive to use experimental genetransfer techniques to produce beneficial "transgenic" animals -- animals created with genes from unrelated species. Such techniques, still far from perfected, so far have been used to create mice that can secrete medically useful drugs in their milk and pigs with leaner meat.

Seventeen applications for patents on animals are pending in the Patent and Trademark Office, according to officials there. Reviews of the first applications may be completed this year. -- R. Weiss
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Author:Weiss, Rick
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 9, 1988
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