MANCHESTER, England — Centaurs, mermaids and satyrs have long existed in humanity's imagination, but recently the biological production of such creatures has been patented.

Late last year, genetic engineering watchdog groups warned that the European Union had granted a patent in December 1999 to an Australian company for a process that would allow the creation of “chimerical” creatures — human/animal hybrids. The patent is now held by a California company, Chemicron International.

Chimeras would be created, most likely, in order to serve as a source of organs and other body parts for human beings.

“This patent, granted in the E.U. [European Union], covers a technology that could include [the creation of] a chimera,” Dr. Sue Mayer, director of Genewatch, a British bioethics group, told the Register: “Greenpeace in Germany did the research [that discovered this patent].”

Mayer said the issuance of such a patent was wrong, as patents are not supposed to be given to things that are “immoral.”

The Manchester Observer, in a Nov. 26 article, noted that this patent specifically covers the possible creation of embryos made containing both “cells from humans and ‘mice, sheep, pigs, cattle, goats or fish.’”

This would not be the first mixing of human and non-human components. Dr. John Haas of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston told the Register that Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., “has been creating embryos by denucleating cow eggs and inserting human DNA.”

The embryos are used for research and then are destroyed, in a process that Haas says is “immoral from start to finish.”

While the new E.U. patent covers a potentially more difficult process, the technology exists to make it a reality, according to Dr. Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y. “The chimeras would look like composites of humans and apes or pigs, etc.,” said Newman, who is a member of the board of directors of The Council for Responsible Genetics in Cambridge, Mass.

“There are people who might contemplate [creating] an animal that is 75% chimp and 25% human,” explained Newman. “Nobody has said that they want to do this but they might be used in a lab.”

Newman, who is strongly opposed to such research, said that if chimeras were produced it was likely that they would be allowed to grow to maturity for “medical research” like organ harvesting.

“The technology currently exists to do this — there is no biological principle that would prevent [it],” he said.

Newman has been at the center of the “hybrid” battle in the United States, applying for a similar patent in order to bring attention to the dangers of such creations. “It's very disgusting; I'm trying to patent [something similar] to block it,” he said.

The Catholic Church is firm in its stand against cloning and artificial human embryo development, and opposes this process on the same ethical grounds. Professor Helen Watt, research fellow at the Linacre Institute, a bioethics think tank whose trustees are the Catholic archbishops of England and Wales, said that while the Church has condoned gene therapy and organ transplants from animals, “an animal/human embryo would be completely out of line.”

Watt explained that Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae “condemns the mixing of human and animal sex cells” through its assertion that the dignity of the human body must be respected through giving “the reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions” (no. 17).

Improper genetic manipulations are more specifically condemned in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1987 document, Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life). “Certain attempts to influence chromosomic or genetic inheritance are not therapeutic … These manipulations are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being and his or her integrity and identity” (no. 33).

David Byers, a spokesman for the U.S. bishops, told the Register that the creation of chimerical embryos “would be an unworthy use of human life and would be a violation of human dignity.” Byers also worried about what a chimera would actually be. “Who knows what you would get?” he asked.

Professor Newman agreed about the destructive potential of such research. “In my view producing a chimera, which blurs the boundaries between humans and nonhuman animals, for experimental purposes, is even more of an ethical problem than producing a human embryo for experimental purposes,” he said.

The Money Motive

But the lure of discovery and subsequent profits drives companies on. Genewatch's Mayer said that the point of “transgenic animals is to improve production or other characteristics; to get the best of both [species].”

Newman agreed. “Just as some companies are now producing pigs that express human genes with the intention of using them for sources of tissue and organ transplantation, the human-animal chimeras would also be potential sources of such transplantable tissues.”

In fact, there has been a flood of recent applications to patent human organs and genes for commercial purposes. Genewatch and the Observer have reported that the number of patents held on “whole or partial human genes” stood at 126,672 the first week in November, but within just one week had jumped to 161,195, an increase of 27%, in what Mayer called “a bit of a gold rush.”

Neither Amrad, the Australian company that was granted the European Union patent, nor Chemicron International, the California company that now holds it, responded to Register requests for comment. However, the Observer reported, “Amrad chief executive John Grace denied his company had ever conducted research in this field and said the patent would not be used to create animals with human cells. He said the process was mainly used to produce genetically engineered mice for research.”

But the very real possibility that human-animal hybrids could be produced is cause for acute alarm, many bioethicists agree. “Technology ought not trump morality,” said Father Germain Kopaczynski, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “To say otherwise leads to a world of technological titans and moral midgets.”

Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.