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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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This week, we have facts about the oncomouse. Fifteen years ago, the first patent was granted for a living creature, a mouse genetically engineered to be susceptible to cancer.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Pat Metheny “The Search” American Garage ECM (1979)]

CURWOOD: It lives. It breathes. It likes cheese. And it's patent number 4,736,866. Fifteen years ago this week, the United States government issued the first patent on a living animal. The invention: a mouse, genetically engineered to be susceptible to cancer.

Philip Leder of Harvard and Timothy Stewart of the University of California obtained the patent. They named it the oncomouse after the Latin word for tumor. To create the oncomouse, the scientists altered a gene that controls cell growth. This gene, a trigger for cancer, was injected into a fertilized mouse egg, and then the egg was implanted into a female mouse. All the resulting offspring contained the mutant DNA.

The oncomouse was designed to help us understand the causes of human cancer, and to test new treatments for the disease. The mouse and its patent generated intense controversy. Some said a living being should never be considered an invention. Others argue that the patent was unfair because it was so broad. It included not just the oncomouse, but all of its descendants and any other animal created in the same way.

Although Harvard University holds the patent, they agreed to give DuPont exclusive marketing rights. That company now sells oncomice and receives royalties from all products derived from them.

Fifteen years on, the controversy continues. Many hail the oncomouse as a way of developing new cancer therapies. But some say it just makes those therapies more expensive. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.




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