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Friday, 5 May, 2000, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Problem patent reworded
Cell BBC
Edinburgh University is developing new cell technologies
Scientists in the UK have changed a controversial patent on a process for culturing human cells to exclude it being used for cloning people.

The changes follow an outcry from campaigners who feared the original wording in the patent could have allowed the process to be used for making copies of humans.

The thirty-five page patent application for genetically altering animal cells was submitted by Edinburgh University and an Australian biotech company, Stem Cell Sciences, and approved by the European Patent Office in Munich, Germany, in December.

The patent referred to "a method of preparing a transgenic animal" but failed to specify "non-human" in the text. Anti-cloning campaigners and some European governments said this was essential because "animal" can also mean human in English scientific usage.

Third parties

The patent was probably also a violation of EU guidelines that take effect on 31 July banning "processes that would change the genetic identity of human organisms".

The European Patent Office admitted earlier this year that the application's approval had been a mistake.

Its rules allow nine months for third parties to challenge an approval. Four such challenges were filed against the patent (number 0695351), including one from Greenpeace.

Peter Mountford, chief scientific officer of Stem Cell Sciences, said the company was grateful the oversight in the application had been brought to their attention.

"Clearly issues raised by this unfortunate oversight are of major importance to all those concerned and for this reason we have acted as quickly as possible in introducing the present changes," he said.

"We are pleased to add that the European Patent Office has now issued a preliminary opinion, finding the new wording is in order."

Patent embarrassment

Dr Mountford stressed that the technology had never been intended for use on people, but nevertheless praised Greenpeace for highlighting the wording problem.

"We commend them for their careful monitoring of patents in this complex field and their on-going efforts to promote proper regulation and debate of such important issues."

The European Patent Office has described the error as an embarrassment, and says it will take care to avoid similar oversights in the future.

Specific patents relating to the technology of cloning known as nuclear transfer and intended for use on non-human animals was recently granted by the UK Patent Office.

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Patent error sparks anger
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