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Europe allows patent on human cloning - by mistake
By Adam Tanner

BERLIN, Feb 21 (Reuters) - The European Patent Office said on Monday it made a mistake in recently granting a patent to a process that could include the cloning of humans.

The Munich-based office granted Edinburgh University a patent on altering cells and human embryos in December, but the decision only came to public attention after the environmental group Greenpeace issued a critical statement on Monday.

"It's a mistake, yes," said patent office spokesman Rainer Osterwadter. "It could be seen to embrace the cloning of humans.

"What's missing is the disclaimer that it does not refer to humans."

Osterwadter said his office could not immediately reverse the decision, but would have to wait for outside parties to file their opposition to the patent. He said it could take years before the review process comes to an end.

Stefan Flothmann of Greenpeace said the environmental group would challenge the decision.

"Living organisms and parts of living organisms are not inventions and only inventions can be patented," he said. "It should not be the patent office that decides this."

Added Greenpeace's Christoph Then: "This brings us significantly closer to producing human beings in the laboratory and then patenting them."

The mistake came when patent officials weighing the turgid 235-page application apparently overlooked a passage -- deep inside the description -- referring to humans.

"In the context of this invention, the term "animal cell" is intended to embrace all animal cells, especially of mammalian species, including human cells," the description read.

Flothmann of Greenpeace said the process described in the patent referred to the alteration of cells such as those in human eggs and sperm, and to the growing of human organs such as livers and hearts in other animals for later transplant.

The inventors of the patent on "Isolation, selection and propagation of animal transgenic stem cells" are Austin Smith at the University of Edinburgh and Peter Mountford, chief science officer at the Australian biotech company Stem Cell Sciences.

Smith declined to comment on Monday and Mountford could not immediately be reached. The University of Edinburgh, which owns the patent, also declined to comment.

Patents on genetically altered organisms go back at least 20 years, when the U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light to a patent on an altered bacteria used in treating oil spills. Since then, governments have extended patents to animal modifications as well.

"In general, genetically modified material can be patented, there's no dispute at all," said Munich-based patent attorney Jobst Wibbelmann.

The problem comes in regards to human alterations, he said, citing a 1998 European directive on biotechnical inventions.

"The human body, at the various stages of its formation and development, and the simple discovery of one of its elements, including the partial sequence of a gene, cannot constitute patentable inventions," the directive reads.

 
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