After years of litigation, two patents on genetically modified apes are no longer valid. An alliance of animal and environmental organizations had fought against the patents of a US company, and finally successfully: the Technical Board of Appeal, as the judicial body of the European Patent Office (EPO), has now ruled that the claims on chimpanzees and other animals are not patentable.

The two patents (EP1456346 and EP1572862) related to monkeys whose genetic material were mixed with that of insects. Such monkeys could be used, for example, in the development of cancer therapies. The patents also claimed mice, rats, cats, dogs, cattle, pigs, horses and sheep as inventions.

For its decision, the Board of Appeal referred to a rule prohibiting patents on the genetic modification of animals where it could result in “suffering of these animals without any significant medical benefit to humans or animals”. For the first time, claims for genetically modified experimental animals were completely withdrawn for ethical reasons, the Alliance of Animal Conservationists expressed satisfaction.

The famous British behavioural scientist Jane Goodall, who dedicated her life to the study and protection of chimpanzees, had also been involved in the matter. The removal of the claims is a clear signal to all scientists “who see animals capable of suffering only as a tool of research,” she said. And reminded us once again how close the great apes are to us: “Chimpanzees are our closest relatives who share 98.6 percent of the composition of our genetic makeup with us.”

“It took the EPO nearly 30 years to get to this point and, for the first time, to severely restrict the patenting of genetically modified animals,” said Ruth Tippe of the No Patent on Life initiative. “We continue to call for a general ban on patents on animals for ethical reasons.”

The new line should at least be a thing of the past for patents on agricultural animals such as cows and pigs, “because no medical benefits can be expected here,” said Gudula Madsen of the Gene Ethical Network. According to Christoph Then, some patents were granted to the organization Testbiotech, for example on cows with high milk yields, but these were never in stables of local farmers – consumers in this country largely reject genetic engineering.

The world’s first patent on life was granted in the United States in 1980, on oil-eating bacteria. After years of litigation, the Supreme Court ruled that patent law did not affect the fact that they were living beings. The Harvard cancer mouse was the first animal to be patented in Europe almost 30 years ago. She contracted cancer because of a modified gene and was to be used for research.

However, the initial run on patents on living beings has eased somewhat – possibly also because of high patent fees. In addition, these specially bred creatures do not necessarily correspond to the complexity of the problems that one would like to solve with them: the cancer mouse, for example, had only one cancer gene – but in breast cancer alone, dozens of genes can play a role. The importance of the mouse for medical research remained low. When the EPO finally confirmed the patent in July 2004, patent protection had already been extinguished.

Opponents now see the path pointed by the Board of Appeal as binding on other cases as well. Because there are still other animal patents – also on monkeys. In 2010, for example, a patent was granted on monkeys with epilepsy (EP1852505). According to Mr. Then, Testbiotech is currently fighting against a patent from the Max Planck Society, in which experimental animals up to primates are claimed (EP2328918).

But even if such patents fall, nothing changes for experimental animals at first. This is because genetic manipulation and research with these animals remains unaffected.

Shakes Gilles

Shakes covers stories ranging from science to health, to technology, to astronomy, etc... On a typical weekend, you'll find him enjoying a picnic at a local park or playing soccer with friends.