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Doctor Seeks Patent for Process Merging Human and Animal DNA

By Rick Weiss
The Washington Post

A New York scientist has quietly applied for a patent on a method for making creatures that are part human and part animal in a calculated move designed to reignite debate about the morality of patenting life forms and engineering human beings.

The scientist, Stuart A. Newman, a cellular biologist at New York Medical College in Valhalla, said he has not created such creatures and never intends to. Indeed, he said, although the hybrids could be extremely useful in medical research, his goal is to stop the technology from being used by anyone - and to force the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the courts to re-examine this country's 18-year history of allowing patents on living creatures, which he considers unethical and immoral.

Patents are not allowed on human beings, but patent-law experts said there is nothing in U.S. patent code that would preclude someone from winning a patent on a partially human creature. Already, the patent office has awarded several patents on animals with minor human components - including laboratory mice engineered with human cancer genes or human immune-system cells.

Even if the patent is not awarded to Newman, several experts agreed, the ploy could achieve its primary goal of forcing a national debate about the commercialization of life in an era when genes, cells, tissues and organs are being shuttled increasingly across species barriers and blurring the distinctions between humans and non-human animals.

"It is a classic slippery slope," said Thomas Murray, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve University. "If we put one human gene in an animal, or two or three, some people may get nervous but you're clearly not making a person yet. But when you talk about a hefty percentage of the cells being human this really is problematic. Then you have to ask these very hard questions about what it means to be human."

The patent office's policy of not granting patents on human beings is based on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which blocks slavery. But the office has never been faced with the question of "how human" an animal would have to be before it was deemed worthy of that protection.

The patent application was filed Dec. 18, but its existence was made public for the first time in yesterday's issue of the scientific journal Nature.