A year-long dispute on the ethic viability of the so-called 'cancer mouse' patent is finally nearing its end. The European Patent Office is expected to rule on the case this week.
That certain something: a cancer gene
In 1982, researchers at Harvard University altered the genetic material of a mouse to make it more susceptible to cancer, thus providing laboratory subjects to aid scientists in their fight against cancerous tumors in humans.
Six years later, the United States Patent Office granted a patent for what became know as the 'cancer mouse'. It was a first in patent history, but in 1992 the European Patent Office (EPO) followed suit. The sole licensee is U.S. research and chemical concern DuPont.
Little and large: A genetically manipulated mouse with a normal mouse
Since the EPO's decision to patent the 'transgenic animal'-- an animal in which at least one gene from another living thing has been planted -- it has received protests from more than 100 groups, parties, organizations and individuals.
'Patent on life'
In November 2001, the Board of Appeals, First Instance, limited the patent to rodents only, but did not go ahead and remove it altogether.
Now, six animal protection and church organizations are involved in the current dispute against the EPO's decision to grant a "patent on life." A final decision by the Board of Appeals is expected by the end of the week.
Today, protests were set to take place outside the patent office in Munich. Christoph Then, an expert on genetic technology for Greenpeace believes that the 'cancer mouse' opened the door to the genetic-technology industry, setting a precedent in the patenting of life.
Key to future decisions
Then claims that the 'cancer mouse' was never economically useful, and even believes that the patent has actually slowed down medical research.
According to an EPO spokesperson, whatever the decision by the Board of Appeals, the patent on the cancer mouse expires on June 24 next year, twenty years after it was officially applied for, as per the norms of patent law.
This makes the current dispute technically short lived. Politically, however, the topic is very much alive; and the outcome of this case will have a rippling effect on any similar cases in the future. And with 800 applications for patents on animals -- 70 of which are transgenic -- there are potentially a lot of cases to affect.