Messenger of Saint Anthony

The cloning of animals and humans has grabbed the headlines and prompted the most public condemnations from people of faith, however the underlying issue remains the conversion of living things into corporate property

No patents on life

By Ellen Teague No patents on life

I WAS MARRIED in 1980. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was martyred in 1980. Solidarity challenged the Soviet-backed government of Poland in 1980. The Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980. Yet, perhaps more momentous than any of these was a landmark case in 1980 in the U.S. Supreme Court where a judge ruled that, for the first time, forms of life could be patented. A scientist, Ananda Chakrabarty, was permitted to patent a bacterium that he had genetically engineered to digest oil spills.

Patents give an exclusive right to an inventor to make or sell an invention for about 20 years. They have been around since the fifteenth century, but, until 22 years ago, the criteria excluded living organisms. The court ruled that patents could now be issued for 'anything under the sun that is made by man.' Since Chakrabarty's bacterium was created in a laboratory through cross breeding, it was not 'nature's handiwork,' the court said, but the product of 'human ingenuity and research.'

Commodifying life

Within a few years the floodgates were opened. By 1985, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office allowed genetically modified (GM) plants, seeds and plant tissue to be patented. By 1988, animal patenting was permitted. Today human gene sequences, cell lines and stem cells are being patented. More than that, the control of ownership of patents is becoming very narrowly concentrated, particularly in the case of staple food crops, in the hands of U.S-based transnational companies. Six biotechnology companies - among them Du Pont and Monsanto - currently control 98% of the global market for patented GM crops. Their long-term strategy, in fact, involves the replacement of the traditional food crops by the patented GM strains.

For centuries, individuals and communities have owned herds of cattle, flocks of poultry and fields of wheat, but they have never owned the species cow, or chicken, or wheat, and never been able to prevent others from raising cows, poultry or wheat. With the development of genetic engineering technology, it became possible to modify the genes that control the cells of all organisms and then patent new transgenic forms of life. The transformation of the organisms that have evolved over millions of years into corporate property represents a qualitative leap in the concept and character of corporate private property. As for the patenting of human genes, Pope John Paul II warned in 1994 that this would not be acceptable to the Catholic Church. This view has been endorsed by bishops conferences around the world who have spoken out against human cloning - for both therapeutic and reproductive purposes - and warned that the common good should be the overarching paradigm on the use of genetic information.

Patenting plants

Genetic diversity is at its richest in tropical countries, which are estimated to contain over 95% of the world's genetic resources. In what the corporate world calls 'bioprospecting' - and others call 'biopiracy' - scouts are sent to these areas to seek out valuable organisms or plants, often drawing upon the wisdom of indigenous and local peoples. They then take samples back to laboratories where they isolate active ingredients or genetic sequences and patent them as their own inventions. Communities can end up having to pay for the right to use something that was previously part of their legacy. Significant popular protest has only slowed the process. Tens of thousands of Indian farmers have demonstrated against foreign patents on their native Neem tree, basmati rice and turmeric. Indigenous peoples in Peru have denounced U.S. patents on maca, a high-altitude Andean plant grown by them for centuries.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity, ratified by 183 countries and in force since 1993, recognises the sovereignty of states and communities over their genetic resources. However, the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPS) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) does not. Since 1995, a key goal of the WTO has been to remove barriers to 'free-trade'. Under TRIPS, countries are obliged to bring their patent laws into line with the industrialised nations by extending them to include living organisms or by setting up equivalent systems of intellectual property rights. This is a key reason why the WTO has been a lobbying focus for Church groups globally.

Patenting is a key driving force behind the pharmaceutical industry. Researchers at Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals investigated Madagascar's Rosy Periwinkle plant in 1958, following clues from indigenous healers. They found that the plant contained two powerful alkaloids: vinblastine and vincristine. The former was found to be effective against Hodgkin's disease, resulting in an 80 percent remission in sufferers of this form of lymph cancer. Vincristine achieves a 90 percent remission rate against childhood leukemia. Global sales of vincristine and vinblastine earn Eli Lilly about $100 million each year.

The 2001 court case in South Africa where 40 transnational pharmaceutical companies took the South African government to court to prevent it importing generic drugs (without brand names) which were needed to treat AIDS illustrates the determination of giant corporations, such as Glaxo-Smith Kline, to protect their patents at any cost. Ciprofloxican, an essential medicine for AIDS sufferers, cost South Africa’s public health sector 52p per pill and the country's private health care providers more than £3 per pill. If the new law was implemented, a generic drug could be imported from India for only 4p per pill. The pharmaceutical companies eventually withdrew the case after an international outcry.

Transgenic animals

Attempts have been made to genetically engineer and then patent fish, cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens to increase their growth rates, have lower fat levels, and more tolerance of diseases common to overcrowded and unhygienic factory farms. Also being researched are pigs and poultry that are more docile and featherless chickens that do not need to be plucked. During 2000, half a million animals, mainly mice, were genetically modified in Britain alone for medical or agricultural research. Pigs too were targetted for the potential growing of organs suitable for humans because their hearts, pancreases and livers are roughly the same size. Animals have suffered terribly. In sheep, incorporation of human and bovine growth hormone genes has resulted in disrupted joint development and a diabetes-like condition, suppression of appetite and a shortened lifespan.

Not all governments are happy about patenting genetically altered animals. In August 1995, Canada's Commissioner of Patents ruled that Harvard University's genetically altered mice were not patentable in Canada. The U.S. university appealed that decision but in April 1998, a court ruled against Harvard, whose 'oncomouse' was genetically engineered to be susceptible to cancers. Its 'inventors' already had a U.S. patent on both the biotech process used to 'create' the oncomouse, and on the mouse itself. The Canadian Patent Office accepted the genetic engineering process claims, but rejected claims on the mammals themselves. 'On even the broadest interpretation I cannot find that a mouse is 'raw material' which was given new qualities from the inventor,' said the judge.

The traditional anthropocentrism of the Church (the tendency to consider human beings and their existence as the most important and central fact of the universe) has prevented a great public outcry by church leaders against the tampering with the integrity of animals and patenting the results. The same cannot be said of Church response to the crossing of human and animal genes and human cloning.

Manipulating human genes

The generation of an adult sheep from one cell of another adult sheep in 1996 opened up the possibility of human cloning: producing individuals not from the union of the egg and sperm, but from transplanting an adult cell into an egg lacking the egg's original instructions. The creator of Dolly the sheep announced in October 2002 that he would be lodging the first application to clone human embryos in Britain. Professor Ian Wilmut, of the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, said that he would focus on human embryonic stem cells - parent cells that can develop into any type of tissue. They would be used to develop treatments for heart disease, Parkinson's disease or test how someone might respond to drugs. The scientist stressed that he had no wish to clone babies by implanting cloned embryos into a surrogate mother. This process is illegal and, Professor Wilmut believes, that it is also unethical and unsafe.

The Catholic Church in Scotland and around the world has loudly voiced its opposition to the use of human embryos for stem cell research. 'An embryo is a human life with potential. To use that as a means to someone else's end - however well intentioned – is wrong,' the Church in Scotland commented. In 2000, the Vatican issued a forthright condemnation of the cloning of human embryos for medical research after the British and US governments eased their previous ban on the procedure, permitting the use of embryos up to 14 days old. Catholic theologians specialising in bioethical issues commented to Catholic News Services on 7 December 2001 that they thought a human clone would have a soul.

Another area of concern is over whether human and animal genes should be allowed to be mixed and then patented? A New York medical school professor, Stuart Newman, is in the process of seeing if he can patent a 'humouse'. In past years the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted patents for some human genes and human cells. Patents have also been given for animals made with bits of human DNA so scientists can study cancer and other diseases. So far the Patent Office has refused attempts to patent human embryos and human beings. Now, the 'humouse' is forcing the Patent Office to defend its position. During five years of sparring over the application 'the Office appears to concede that it has little or no legal authority to stop what would clearly be a controversial development: the patenting of human embryos.' Newman said that he has never made a humouse and probably never would. Both he and his patent partner, biotechnology critic Jeremy Rifkin, object to manipulating human life. They believe, however, that federal law does not sufficiently limit scientific work with human embryos and human life, and their patent application is intended to force legislators to change that.

In fact, attempts to mix humans and animals are under way. Researchers in Korea last summer launched a project to create cross-species embryos combining human DNA with cow ova. Researchers for a U.S. company, Advanced Cell Technology Inc., were the first to admit putting human DNA into a cow egg in 1998. Because of protests, research in this area has largely shifted outside the United States. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has received an application from Advanced Cell Technology based on the work it was doing. The office also has received applications on human embryos cloned using cow eggs from a separate South Korean team at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Seoul National University.

The University of Missouri probably already has in its possession a patent that some lawyers say could cover human cloning. The patent covers a way of turning unfertilized eggs into embryos, and the production of cloned mammals using that technique. Unlike some other patents on animal cloning, this one does not specifically exclude human from the definition of mammals; indeed, it specifically mentions the use of human eggs.

Genes that are perceived to 'cause' many common illnesses have either been patented or applications have been lodged for the patent. Already Duke University in the U.S. has taken out a patent on the Alzheimer's gene which they have licensed to a pharmaceutical company. Myriad Genetics, which is now owned by Novartis, has applied for a patent on a cardiovascular disease gene. A patent on the melanoma gene is owned by Millennium Pharmaceuticals. Even a gene associated with obesity has now been patented by Millennium Pharmaceuticals and licensed to Hoffmann-LaRoche. These and a host of other patents will now be enforced in Europe since the Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions was passed by the European Parliament on 12 May 1998. The EU Council of Ministers approved the Directive in autumn 1998, but the Dutch Government has filed a nullity suit at the European Court of Justice against it. Italy too opposes it.

Voices of protest

Though the cloning of animals and humans has grabbed the headlines and prompted the most public condemnations from people of faith, the underlying issue is the conversion of living things into corporate property. Challenges to it have been presented by Church groups around the world.

The Columban Missionary Society, with administrative headquarters in Ireland, has given priority to education and action on the issue of Patenting of Life since its General Assembly in 2000. Sean McDonagh SSC, a priest with 20 years' experience in the Philippines and author of a number of books and articles on the Church and ecological issues says that, 'What is happening in the latter part of the 20th century is a new and more invidious form of colonialism. The goal this time is not to conquer new lands, but to colonise life itself.' The Society has produced popular level study material to urge the Catholic constituency to study the issues, however technical they appear to be at first.

In November 2000, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Southern Africa deplored, 'greater concentration of ownership inherent in new technologies, and laws drawn up to protect them'. The bishops of the Philippines, Caritas Pakistan and the Catholic Council of Thailand for Development all signed the Penang Declaration of April 2000 which included the words: 'We state that the patenting of seeds, genes and life forms is unethical and a violation of the fundamental rights of people and communities. We affirm sustainable and ecologically sound community based farming to be the answer to the food security problem.' The CIDSE network of European Catholic Development agencies issued a statement in 2000, 'Biopatenting and the Threat to Food Security', which said: 'If granting patents on biological material leads to further disadvantage and vulnerability for the poor of the developing world, then patenting, which was once a response to potential injustice against the person of the inventor, now represents a real threat of injustice against the world's poor.'

Pope John Paul ll, in his message for Lent 2002, warned that 'because it is a gift, life can never be regarded as a possession or as private property, even if the capabilities we now have to improve the quality of life can lead us to think that man is the 'master' of life.' During an open-air Mass in Poland in August, attended by more than two million people, he regretted that man was claiming for himself, 'a Creator's right to interfere in the mystery of human life'. The commodification of human life through patenting has even been challenged by some prominent scientists. On 7 October, Cambridge-based Sir John Sulston was one of three scientists awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for Medicine. A leading player in the human genome project, he believes passionately, unlike his U.S. counterparts, that it is wrong to patent human gene sequences. 'Mousetraps are in one category, human genes are in the other!' says Sulston.


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