WITHOUT a word of public debate, Dr. Philip Leder '56, a Harvard geneticist, was granted a patent earlier this month for his engineered mouse. This marked the first time an animal was classified as an invention. Designed to be susceptible to cancer, the mouse will allow researchers to better understand the causes of that disease in humans.
With more than 14,000 similar applications pending, the mouse patent shows that we must come to grips with important questions on the ethics and regulation of the newly realized area of biotechnology. The rapid growth of genetic engineering developments is forcing us to decide how far we as a society are willing to let the bounds of science go.
The granting of patents on selectively bred plants or genetically-engineered microorganisms has been accepted for years. But the issue of the first patent for a "transgenic nonhuman mammal" should have been the focal point for an ethical debate on man's right to manipulate the course of nature to fit its needs.
We doubt that anyone worries about a genetic experiment in the lab gone awry with 50-ft. white mice rampaging godzilla-like through our cities, or about cancer genes that go wild, communicating the disease and wiping out huge segments of the population. Such things simply are not in the realm of possiblity in terms of genetic research.
What is disturbing is that at a critical point in scientific development, when the questions surrounding a new technology should have been discussed, the matter received no public debate. The patent for the mouse was strangely kept quiet until a decision was announced. Donald J. Quigg, the Commissioner of Patents, remarked in response to protests: "How can anybody say that this kind of development is unethical or wrong?"
BUT the granting of the patent ignored serious ethical questions. Is it legitimate to patent animals? If the government starts to patent mice, where does it stop? These questions must be addressed by public discussion.
A group of more than 20 congressmen hopes to place a moratorium on the approval of any more animal patents until the ethics of the situation can come under closer scrutiny. The legislation would also revoke the Harvard patent until a decision were reached.
We support the congressional move to open debate. As the congressmen stated in a letter to the patent office, "The Patent Office has been given no clear and certain signal from Congress that the unrestricted patenting of animals is acceptable public policy." At the genesis of such important and far-reaching technological developments, we should all be given a say in policy before a government agency--quietly, without discussion--decides for us.