Congress, Biotech Firms Wrestle Over Patenting Human Beings

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 10, 2003   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Congress, Biotech Firms Wrestle Over Patenting Human Beings

by Steven Ertelt Editor
November 10, 2003

Washington, DC ( — As human cloning and embryonic stem cell research become more prevalent, biotechnology firms are increasingly interested in obtaining patents on human beings to protect duplication of their work and make money.

Since 1987, the U.S. Patent Office has prevented anyone from obtaining patents on humans, including human embryos. Yet, an attempt by pro-life members of Congress to put that policy into law is drawing fierce opposition.

Pro-life congressman Dave Weldon (R-FL), a medical doctor by profession, put forward an anti-human patent bill that the House of Representatives approved in July.

Since that time, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) has launched a lobbying campaign against the amendment, and has now enlisted the political aid of the broader Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), an umbrella organization of groups supporting human cloning for research purposes.

Though they claim to support the current Patent Office policy, they oppose Weldon’s amendment.

"We’re very concerned that this will not only hurt stem cell research but curb a lot of other biotechnology advances," said Michael J. Werner, BIO’s policy chief.

No so, says Weldon, who also authored the House-approved ban on all human cloning.

"They oppose this amendment, saying it would have a far broader scope potentially prohibiting patents on stem cell lines, procedures for creating human embryos, prosthetic devices, and in short almost any drug or product that might be used in or for human beings," Weldon explains.

Weldon says the claim is absurd and that his amendment is almost identical to the Patent Office policy, which allows patenting of animal cloning, but not human cloning.

The Weldon amendment reads, "None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available under this Act may be used to issue patents on claims directed to or encompassing a human organism.”

A representative of the Patent Office (USPTO) recently testified before the President’s Council on Bioethics that the office has a longstanding policy prohibiting patents on human beings.

Karen Hauda told the council that, "When a patent claim includes or covers a human being, the USPTO rejects the claim on the grounds that it is directed to non-statutory subject matter."

"When examining a patent application, a patent examiner must construe the claim presented as broadly as is reasonable in light of the application’s specification. If the examiner determines that a claim is directed to a human being at any stage of development as a product, the examiner rejects the claims," Hauda added.

The Patent Office first announced its policy in 1987 saying it would reject any patent claim "including within its scope a human being."

Legislation codifying the policy would help make it official in case future presidential administrations wanted a change.

Pro-life groups strongly support the Weldon amendment saying it protects unborn human life.

"The biotechnology industry wishes to patent human embryos and collect fees for each copy sold," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

Johnson said the biotech industry wants to engage in eugenics by creating embryos that have certain genetic traits that causes diseases such as cancer. Then, researchers can test vaccines on the embryos.

The Weldon amendment was attached to one of the many governmental funding bills. It is not found in the Senate version of the bill. Pro-life lawmakers could attach it there or ensure in a conference committee that it remains in the final version sent to President Bush for his signature.