The method for cloning animals such as the famed Dolly the Sheep can be patented, but the resulting animals themselves cannot, a U.S. federal appeals court has ruled.
"Dolly's genetic identity to her donor parent renders her unpatentable," Judge Timothy Dyk wrote Thursday for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C.
Pilar Ossorio, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law School, called the decision a victory for people who thought cloning animals was morally wrong.
"This ruling is taking away an incentive for research organizations to pursue more research into cloning, at least on the margins," she said.
Scientists Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell of the Roslin Institute of Edinburgh, Scotland, generated international headlines and intense ethical debates in 1996 when they created Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell.
Dolly, named after country singer Dolly Parton, was euthanized six years later after she was diagnosed with a progressive lung disease.
The institute, which owns a patent to a method of cloning called somatic cell nuclear transfer, applied for a patent over the clones themselves but was rejected by a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office examiner in 2008.
In February 2013, the USPTO affirmed the examiner's decision, saying the clones did not possess "markedly different characteristics than any found in nature."
In affirming the USPTO, the Federal Circuit said that nature, natural phenomena and abstract ideas were not eligible for patent protection.
Salvatore Arrigo, a lawyer for Roslin, said he was disappointed with the ruling.
"There's no doubt in anyone's mind that Dolly is man-made," he said.
Roslin had argued that its clones were distinguishable from their donor mammals, in part because environmental factors could make their shape, size, color and behaviors different than their donors.
The Federal Circuit disagreed, noting that Roslin itself had said that such differences were produced "quite independently of any effort of the patentee."
"There is nothing in the claims...that suggests that the clones are distinct in any relevant way from the donor animals of which they are copies," Dyk wrote.
The USPTO declined to comment.
The case is In re Roslin Institute (Edinburgh), U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, No. 1407.
(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; Editing by Ted Botha and Ken Wills)