University of Missouri officials, responding to concerns raised by a watchdog group, said on Friday they would never allow human cloning under a patent held by the school and licensed to a Massachusetts biomedical firm.
If that's the case, the group's legal director said, the university should revise its patent or the federal Patent and Trademark Office should throw it out.
"There's more to the story than the University of Missouri," said Joe Mendelson, legal director of the Washington, D.C.-based International Center for Technology Assessment. "That's the fact that the patent office allowed a patent for the process of cloning a human being."
No law forbids human cloning, although Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., has sponsored a bill to prohibit it. Brownback also has said he intends to introduce a bill prohibiting patents on humans and human embryos.
The university's patent, granted April 3, 2001, is for a process of turning unfertilized mammal eggs into embryos and producing cloned animals.
As developed and subsequently licensed to BioTransplant Inc. of Charlestown, Mass., it applies to cloning miniature pigs that scientists hope will provide organs for transplant into humans.
The pigs were bred jointly by the university and Immerge BioTherapeutics, a joint venture of Novartis Pharma AG and BioTransplant Inc. The patent was based on the work of Randall S. Prather, a professor of reproductive technology at the university's Columbia campus. Prather did not return calls to The Associated Press.
What drew the attention of the Washington group's Patent Watch Project is that the patent does not specifically prohibit human cloning.
"It appears from the record that the inclusion of humans within the scope of mammals may have been intentional," the group said in a statement issued Thursday.
Among other things, the patent specifically mentions human eggs.
However, university spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken said Friday that the Patent Watch statement was misleading.
"While the patent does not specify that the technology will only be applied to swine, the researcher has absolutely no intent to use the technology on humans," Banken said.
The university could make that point moot, Mendelson said, by revising its patent.
"If the university is serious about what it's saying, then it should go back and revisit the patent and make sure the words 'nonhuman mammal' are in that patent," he said.