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The Oncomice

These two mice are the offspring of the first mammals ever to be patented.

No that doesn't mean they were covered in black shiny plastic and made into a pair of shoes!

It means the mice legally belong to a specific person or company and if any body else wants to use them they have to pay money and/or ask the owners for the rights to them.

They were created using genetic engineering by two Harvard Medical School scientists; Philip Leder and Timothy A. Stewart. They received their US government "mice" patent on April 12, 1988 and the controversial patent caused major quakes across the world!

The mice they engineered were transgenic oncomice. They had at least one additional gene artificially inserted into their own natural DNA. The gene could have come from a chicken, a monkey or even a human!

In fact the gene inserted was a highly active oncogene sequence that would cause a high percentage of the mice to develop cancerous tumours. Also, any offspring these mice had would also inherit this tumour inducing oncogene. This made the mice and their offspring ideal for testing possible promoting agents of cancer such as sunlight exposure or poor diet and for trialing anti-cancer drugs.

So why all the fuss? Surely everyone would be pleased that the hard working scientists would get their just rewards for pioneering work in the fight against cancer? Why all the controversy over a few mice?

Well, in reality, a company called DuPont funded most of Leder and Stewart's work. They legally owned the license to the oncomice, selling them to research institutes around the world. And, more importantly, this patent was seen as the starting gun for geneticists to legally create any transgenic animals they wanted to and be backed by government patents.

Animal rights groups object strongly to the use of animals in this way. Insertion of the genes is not precise and may result in lethal mutations or gross physical abnormalities. Religious groups are quick to point out how unnatural the new genetic processes are. Patents are allowing us to produce transgenic animals with no thoughts for the possible future consequences.

The pace of genetic exploration has been frantic since 1988 and we now have several thousand plant and animal transgenic patents. We now have Dolly, the first cloned and patented sheep , Polly; the first patented lamb and also a cloned and patented calf .

Is it really only one small step to our first cloned and patented human being released on the world?

President Clinton banned the use of federal funds for "morally unacceptable" human cloning in 1997 and proposed a bill banning human cloning. However, this bill would also ban research into foetal development which many see as important. Thus, it is difficult to know where to draw the line and controversy and debate continues throughout the world.

So from two little mice to "Hello Polly" the Biotechnology war still rages and looks set to get uglier!