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April 16: The Oncomouse

April 16, 2014
oncomouseThe U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled on this date in 1987 that animals created in laboratories can be patented. In April of the following year, Harvard was awarded the first patent under this ruling for the oncomouse, a mouse genetically engineered to be highly susceptible to breast cancer. The mouse was designed by Philip Leder (with Timothy A. Stewart of Genentech). Leder is best known for his work with Nobelist Marshall Nirenberg in the 1960s in the elucidation of the genetic code. His scientific group was also the first to define the base sequence of a complete mammalian gene, and he did key research into the structure of genes that carry the code for antibody molecules. According to Michael Crichton (writing in the New York Times in 2007), "Our genetic makeup represents the common heritage of all life on earth. You can’t patent snow, eagles or gravity, and you shouldn’t be able to patent genes, either. Yet by now one-fifth of the genes in your body are privately owned. . . . The results have been disastrous. Ordinarily, we imagine patents promote innovation, but that’s because most patents are granted for human inventions. Genes aren’t human inventions, they are features of the natural world. As a result these patents can be used to block innovation, and hurt patient care." "The genetic code allows us to see the beautiful construct that evolution has created. The genetic code is exquisitely important and, at the same time, aesthetically pleasing." -Philip Leder