Company Gets Rights to Cloned Human Embryos

A U.S. company has received two British patents that appear to grant it commercial rights to human embryos created by cloning. The precedent-setting patents, issued last week on the cloning method that produced Dolly the sheep, have sparked protest from groups concerned about the ethics of biotechnology patents, especially those covering human genes or cells.

The British government is "the first government in the world that has issued patent protection on a human being at any stage in development," claims author-activist Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C. He said he will challenge the patent, arguing that British law forbids giving someone property rights to a human even when an embryo is only a ball of a few dozen cells, called the blastocyst stage. The patent, he says, is "breathtaking and profoundly unsettling."

The patent gives California-based Geron Corp. exclusive rights to animal embryos prepared by transferring the nucleus of a quiescent diploid donor cell into a suitable recipient cell up to and including the blastocyst stage. That claim includes human embryos and cell lines, says David Earp, Geron's vice president of intellectual property. Last summer, Geron bought Roslin Bio-med, the commercial arm of the government-funded Roslin Institute outside Edinburgh, Scotland, where Dolly was born in 1996.

U.K. patent office spokesperson Brian Caswell says European Union directives forbid patents on human cloning, but he suggests that the patent was allowed because it only covers embryos in "the very early stages of development" that would not result in a live birth.

According to Earp, Geron has received word from the U.S. patent office that its claims have been allowed, and he expects a patent to be issued in the next few months. The U.S. patent office has been reluctant in the past to issue patents covering human material, and Geron's U.S. application only covers cloning of nonhuman mammals. Although Earp says Geron also plans to pursue the development of therapies based on cloning technology in the United States, he says the company "is pursuing a different strategy" to protect its commercial claims.