Animal rights activists in Germany are contesting three patents on genetically engineered chimpanzees granted this year by the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich. One of the challenges was filed today; the other two will follow shortly, says Ruth Tippe, a spokesperson for a German advocacy group called No Patents on Life.
"It is incomprehensible why the patent office would grant patents on these animals," Tippe told ScienceInsider in a phone conversation minutes after filing papers with EPO to oppose the first of the three patents.
Patent number EP1456346 was granted to Intrexon, a company based in Blacksburg, Virginia, in February. In it, the company claims to have invented a way to introduce into chimpanzees—as well as rats, rabbits, horses, and other animals—a system to switch specific genes on or off. The animals are intended for pharmaceutical research. "The patent does not show a clear medical benefit that can be weighed against the animals' suffering, and does not explain why chimpanzees are needed," Tippe says.
Instead of chimpanzees, other animals could be used, Tippe argues. "I'm against patents on any animals, but everything would be better than chimpanzees, our closest relatives." She worries that, at a time when using apes in research has become increasingly rare, patenting transgenic chimps could create an economic incentive to use more of the animals.
In a statement e-mailed to ScienceInsider, Intrexon did not elaborate on the potential benefits of transgenic chimps, but it said that "genetically modified chimpanzees are not an active area of research for Intrexon," and that "approximately 99%" of the content of the European patent does not relate to chimpanzees.
Siobhan Yeats, an examiner of biotechnology patents at EPO, says the office routinely weighs animal suffering against expected benefits. If EPO has no objection on these grounds, then that isn't noted in the patent file, she says, "but that does not mean it wasn't looked at." And obtaining a patent does not automatically grant people the right to use their invention, Yeats says; depending on the country, laws and regulations may ban the use of genetically engineered chimps. "To use a drastic example: If you get a patent on an atomic bomb, of course you cannot use it," she says.
Intrexon now has 6 months to defend its patent. Then it will be reexamined by at least two new EPO officials before a decision is made to revoke, maintain, or amend it.
The company was granted another patent on chimpanzees genetically engineered to include a switch for certain genes this year, whereas Altor BioScience, based in Miramar, Florida, was granted a patent on chimpanzees with a humanized immune system. The latter could, for instance, be used to test antibody therapies. No Patents on Life, together with a German group called Testbiotech and other nongovernmental organizations, plans to challenge these patents as well, Tippe says, using similar arguments.