Commercialization of traditional medicines

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Biopiracy is a situation where indigenous knowledge of nature is exploited for commercial gain with no compensation to the indigenous people themselves[1]. Detractors of utilization of natural knowledge such as Greenpeace[2] claim these practices contribute to inequality between developing countries rich in biodiversity, and developed countries hosting companies which engage in biopiracy.

Bioprospecting is an umbrella term describing the discovery of new and useful biological mechanisms, either with or without the help of indigenous knowledge, and with or without compensation[3]. In this way, bioprospecting includes biopiracy and also includes the search for previously unknown compounds in organisms that have never been used in traditional medicine.[4]

Famous cases

The rosy periwinkle

The rosy periwinkle case dates from the 1950s. The rosy periwinkle, while native to Madagascar, had been widely introduced into other tropical countries around the world well before the discovery of vincristine. This meant that researchers could obtain local knowledge from one country and plant samples from another. The locally known medical properties of the plant were not the same as the medical properties discovered and commercially used by Eli Lilly[citation needed]. The use of the plant as a cure for diabetes was the original stimulus for research, but cures for cancer were the most important results. Different countries are reported as having acquired different beliefs about the medical properties of the plant.[5] The Hodgkin's Lymphoma chemotherapeutic drug vinblastine is also derivable from the rosy periwinkle.[6]

The neem tree

In 1995 the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a pharmaceutical research firm received a patent on a technique to extract an anti-fungal agent from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), which grows throughout [[India][Nepal]]; Indian villagers have long understood the tree's medicinal value. Although the patent had been granted on an extraction technique, the Indian press described it as a patent on the neem tree itself; the result was widespread public outcry, which was echoed throughout the developing world. Legal action by the Indian government followed, with the patent eventually being overturned in 2005.[7][8]

Importantly, the pharmaceutical company involved in the neem case argued that as traditional Indian knowledge of the properties of the neem tree had never been published in an academic journal, such knowledge did not amount to "prior art" (prior art is the term used when previously existing knowledge bars a patent). public knowledge and public disclosure (verbal or written) is prior art.

The Enola Bean

The Enola bean is a variety of Mexican yellow bean, so called after the wife of the man who patented it in 1999.[9]. The allegedly distinguishing feature of the variety is seeds of a specific shade of yellow. The patent-holder subsequently sued a large number of importers of Mexican yellow beans with the following result: "...export sales immediately dropped over 90% among importers that had been selling these beans for years, causing economic damage to more than 22,000 farmers in northern Mexico who depended on sales of this bean."[10] A lawsuit was filed on behalf of the farmers, and on April 14, 2005 the US-PTO ruled in favor of the farmers. An appeal was heard on 16 January 2008, and the patent was revoked in May 2008.[11] An appeal to the court against the revocation was unsuccessful (Decided October 2009). public knowledge and public disclosure (verbal or written) is prior art.

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