WASHINGTON _ Jeremy Rifkin's opposition to what he calls"patenting of genetically engineered animals and human genes, cellsand organs" has overreached what limited support in Congress theactivist has enjoyed in the past.

Rifkin, who heads the Foundation on Economic Trends here, oftenhas spoken out against genetic engineering, including agriculturalbiotechnology and human growth hormones. Now he plans anannouncement on Thursday in Washington that he has formed acoalition of religious groups which will work toward opposingcommercial patents on life.

A spokesman for the Commerce Department called Rifkin'sopposition a "misunderstanding. The U.S. Patent and Trade Office[PTO] does not patent organs," said Richard Maulsbe, PTOspokesman. Using the analogy of making steel out of iron, he saidthat patents protectproducts made out of naturally occurring substances that aresubsequently used in drug formulation."

While Rifkin is expected to challenge the patent process in the courts,other reports are circulating that Rifkin hopes to find a Congressionalally to sponsor legislation to impose a moratorium on all futurebiotech patents.

However, key Congressional committees that have jurisdiction overthe PTO or FDA told BioWorld that Rifkin's initiative has no supporton Capitol Hill. "There is no active interest in the Senate Labor andHuman Resources Committee. This issue has the potential to generatesome controversy but right now it is not a major issue," said MikeHurok, spokesman for the committee.

Even friends of Rifkin are hard pressed to back him on the biotechpatent issue. A spokesman for a Congressman who in the pastintroduced legislation strongly supported by Rifkin told BioWorldthat "Rifkin's claims of support are grossly overstated. While biotechpatents need appropriate safeguards, there is no interest in Congressto roll back long-standing U.S. patent policy."

Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) who has been concerned about theethical issues raised by biotech patents, does not favor a moratoriumat this time. Julie MacGregor, a Hatfield spokeswoman, toldBioWorld that while Hatfield in the past has supported a ban onbiotech patents he now favors establishing a bioethics commissionthat will examine the implications of patenting biotech materials.

Rifkin's coalition, first reported in daily newspapers on May 13,claims the involvement of "80 religious faiths and denominations."But when contacted by BioWorld for a list of the religiousorganizations, Rifkin declined to produce it.

The United Methodist Church, which represents 9.5 million U.S.church members, is the only church that has officially come outagainst patenting of genetically engineered products. Otherclergymen who back Rifkin have done so as individuals and "must gothrough the consultative process with their organizations," saidJaydee Hanson, an official with the United Methodist Church inWashington, and one of the initiative's leaders.

Patricia King, a health issues lobbyist for the U.S. CatholicConference, said the Conference, which represents all Catholicbishops, was not involved in the Rifkin initiative nor was she awareof any large religious denominations that are backing Rifkin. TheU.S. Catholic Conference is the largest Christian lobbyingorganization.

Rifkin also appears to be at odds with the religious signatories overstrategies to address the biotech patent issue. While he is planning alegislative or legal challenge, the religious groups are not.

"We're not sure if the effort is formally backed by any church or ifthe individuals are involved out of their personal predilection,"Biotechnology Industry Organization President Carl Feldbaum toldBioWorld.

Rifkin promises a "nationwide education campaign in the nation'schurches, synagogues, mosques and temples to raise criticaltheological concerns about the patenting of life."

Biotech firms are opposed to any diminution in the protection thatpatents afford in safe-guarding their intellectual property frommisuse. Feldbaum said he will counter Rifkin's arguments in a "solid,deliberative way" and welcomes the opportunity to educate the publicabout the issues. n

-- Michele L. Robinson Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.