Magazine article New Internationalist

Pirates Ahoy!: Micro-Organisms, Plants, Animals, Human Genes -- Anything Goes in the Patenting Free-for-All. Here Are a Few Case Studies

Magazine article New Internationalist

Pirates Ahoy!: Micro-Organisms, Plants, Animals, Human Genes -- Anything Goes in the Patenting Free-for-All. Here Are a Few Case Studies

Article excerpt

Soybeans

THE CLAIMS

A share of the multi-billion-dollar soybeans crop could make a patent-holder very happy indeed. A biotechnology company called Agracetus was awarded a patent in 1994 which covered all transgenic soybeans. Monsanto protested vigorously, alleging lack of novelty. But when Monsanto purchased Agracetus the complaints were dropped.

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Currently Monsanto has an application lodged with the World Intellectual Property Organization (already granted in Australia) which claims gene sequences associated with high-yielding soybeans plants, all plants which have them, including those in the wild, and screening methods to identify the molecular marker of the sequences.

THE FALLOUT

Such broad patents stake out territory, blocking competition. Farmers sowing saved seeds could find themselves legally pursued by Monsanto as has often occurred. If the application is granted breeders of soybeans would be severely restricted. Ironically, the gene sequence originates from a wild Chinese species of soybeans. China, the genetic homeland of the crop, won't receive a bean.

Hoodia

THE CLAIMS

A succulent plant chewed by the San people of southern Africa to suppress hunger on long treks. South Africa's Council for Scientific Research (CSIR) isolated the appetite-suppressing ingredient and promptly patented it. Phytopharm - a British biotech company - licensed it from CSIR, and then licensed it on to Pfizer (of Viagra fame) for $32 million. Pfizer hopes to put an anti-obesity drug on the market which could be worth $2 billion a year.

THE FALLOUT

The San were not best pleased with this result, especially as Phytopharm's chief executive claimed they had 'disappeared' when mutterings of compensation for their traditional knowledge arose. They sued. A benefit-sharing agreement is now in the air with possible roles for the San to harvest the plant, educational scholarships and royalty payments. But such royalties are rarely above 1-2 per cent, if that. And if this is a victory, does that make patenting life OK? Whatever happened to life belonging to us all?

Oncomouse

THE CLAIMS

Genetically engineered by the lab coats at Harvard University to be susceptible to cancer, the oncomouse was the first animal to be patented in the US in 1987. It and its offspring, who shared this susceptibility, were offered up to the medical establishment as experimental animals for cancer therapy research. The multinational DuPont snapped up the European patent in 1992, attempting to gain control over all animals produced using the oncomouse technique. DuPont also staked claims to any future anticancer products created using the animals.

THE FALLOUT

The European patent was contested by public groups on the grounds that it was contrary to morality, but the European Patent Office replied saying that interpreting morality was beyond its remit. They later took the position that any 'invention' that benefited humanity more than the suffering caused to the animal was morally acceptable. In November 2001 the patent was upheld 'limited to transgenic rodents containing an additional cancer gene'. The battle in the Canadian courts lasted 15 years before a Canadian patent was granted in August 2000.

The bottom line is that this patent reduced animals to the level of machines. It changed traditional prohibitions on the patenting of breeds, especially those that offended morality. It opened the floodgates to further animal patents. Numerous transgenic animals are in the pipeline.

Milk, eggs and meat

THE CLAIMS

With a plethora of obesity-related diseases plaguing the rich world, low-cholesterol animal products would rake in cash. The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine filed for a world patent covering animals genetically engineered to have increased muscle mass. The application was staggering in its breadth, claiming not only ownership of transgenic animals and how they are created, but also all their food products. …

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