New methods of genetic engineering and patents on mammals are driving an increase in the number of animal experiments

New Testbiotech report examines problems in animal welfare

12 August 2016 / In recent years, Europe has seen an increasingly strong trend towards experiments with genetically engineered animals. And the numbers continue to rise. In Germany, the number of genetically engineered animals used in experiments was around 1 million in 2013. Since 2004, the number of experiments has nearly tripled.

The genetic engineering of animals is problematic from an ethical point of view because it involves animal suffering. In many cases, just the creation of a genetically engineered animal means that a high number of other animals are sacrificed. For example, surrogate mothers are needed to give birth to the genetically engineered mammals. Many of the genetically manipulated animals die due to severely adverse effects on health or are killed because they were not “successfully” genetically engineered. In addition, many of the animals that are “successfully” engineered suffer from intended or unintended gene-defects.

New methods of genetic engineering using nucleases such as CRISPR / Cas supposedly allow the more targeted genetic engineering of mammalian cells. Nevertheless, these methods still cause unintended side effects and in many cases are not as precise as they are said to be.

These new methods of genetic engineering are now providing additional impetus to the increase in animal experiments, and we are seeing the large-scale creation of new laboratory animals. Several companies are offering to manipulate mice and rats specifically 'on demand' at low cost; they will also deliver these animals within short period of time.

Frequently, there is no direct medical benefit to be derived from these animal experiments. On the contrary, it is quite often the case that commercial interests override medical necessities. Overall the patents being filed on these genetically engineered animals are triggering the wrong incentives. In fact, it appears from the patent applications that companies and investors actually intend to make a profit from animals suffering. Despite ethical concerns and prohibitions in patent law, the European Patent Office (EPO) has already granted a large number of such patents on genetically engineered animals and their further commercial usage. Already the number of patents granted has risen above1500 and the number of registered applications is around 5000. The patents include all animal species. Just recently, the EPO rejected oppositions against patents on genetically engineered chimpanzees.

A further specific matter of concern is the increasing number of patents being filed on genetically engineered farm animals such as cattle and pigs. These animals supposedly produce more milk or gain weight more rapidly; they are being engineered to meet the demands of animal production on an industrial scale. In this context, the report examines recent patent applications filed by the US company, Recombinetics. Amongst the animals claimed are primates, pigs, sheep, goats, poultry, rabbits, fish, dogs, cats and rats.