January/February 2004 Issue
Gods and Monsters
Talking apes, flying pigs, superhumans with armadillo attributes, and other strange considerations of Dr. Stuart Newman's fight to patent a human/animal chimera
ON APRIL FOOLS' DAY 1998, within hours of reading U.S. patent application No. 08/993,564, the Honorable Bruce Lehman did something no other commissioner of patents had done in the 200-year history of America's oldest government agency. He stepped before a cluster of microphones and announced that the patent would never be approved. No half-human "monsters" would be patented, Lehman declared angrily, or any other "immoral inventions."
Legal scholars -- accustomed to an office bound by statute to remain silent until patents are approved or rejected -- were shocked. Forgoing the traditional 18-month review period, Lehman had issued a marching order to his staff to reject a patent application they had barely read, rather as if a judge had instructed a jury that the defendant was guilty before the trial began. Furthermore, to support his decision, Lehman cited an 1817 court ruling that excluded inventions "injurious to the well-being, good policy, or good morals of society." But patent law had long since been amended to say that if an applicant could claim constructive use for a patent, he or she could not be denied simply because there might be dangerous or unethical uses of the invention.
"Even attorneys who worshiped the system were horrified," recalls former patent examiner Peter di Mauro, who has since left the agency. Research biologists and biotech executives also felt blind-sided, hearing in Commissioner Lehman's outburst a threat to the hard-earned clearance they had won from the Supreme Court 18 years earlier to patent "anything under the sun made by man" -- even living organisms.
Strange as it may seem, the inventor, Dr. Stuart Newman, a soft-spoken developmental biologist and professor at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York, completely agreed with Lehman that his invention defied the boundaries of human morality. It's why he filed for the patent. And it's why, six years later, as the biomedical community holds its breath, he and the Patent Office remain locked in a legal battle that may redefine what we mean by "human."
Newman's patent application is for an intriguing biotechnological contrivance called a chimera [ki-mir-a]. According to Greek mythology, a chimera was a part-lion, part-goat, part-serpent creature that terrorized Lycia until it was slain by the hero Bellerophon. If biotech continues to run amok, warns Newman, such inventions of legend and allegory could actually be invented.
Created by injecting the embryonic stem cells of one or more species into the embryo of another species and then allowing that embryo to continue development in the womb of either species, a biological chimera is a way to hybridize two or more species that won't cross sexually. The exact results are largely unpredictable except for the certainty that the chimera will contain cells of each species proportionate to the numbers placed in the embryo. A creature made from an equal number of cells from two species could look like one species but contain the genes, organs, and intelligence of the other.
Newman seeks to patent "chimeric embryos and animals containing human cells." And while his application cites innocuous biomedical uses for human/ animal chimeras -- such as toxicological research and the potential for growing rejection-proof human organs in pigs or other creatures -- taken to its most extreme but not necessarily impossible end, the technology could be used to manufacture soldiers with armadillolike shielding, quasi-human astronauts engineered for long-range space travel, and altered primates with enough cognitive ability to ride a bus, follow basic instructions, pick crops in 119 degrees, or descend into a mine shaft without worrying their silly little heads about inalienable human rights and the resulting laws and customs that demand safe working conditions.
Mark Dowie discovered this story about the paradox of the chimera patent while researching a longer article on the patenting of life-forms. Dowie is a former publisher and editor of Mother Jones and teaches graduate course in scientific writing at the University of California, Berkeley.
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© 2004 The Foundation for National Progress