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Researchers Explore Ethnobotany
and Protection of Property Rights
From ancient painkiller to modern miracle drug. Such a journey can bring tremendous benefits to some, but it can also leave behind the indigenous people whose knowledge first revealed the value of the treasured substance.
In the publication, Pharmaceutical Biology: Ethnobotanical and Bioprospective Effects on Drug Discovery in the Next Millennium (Volume 39 Number Supplement 2001), published by Pharmaceutical Biology, a peer-reviewed journal, researchers propose ways to protect the intellectual property rights of the people who first used the plants for medicinal purposes and address the significance of traditional medicine in combating disease, and the potential for future discoveries from prospecting for biological substances. Many of the papers that comprise this issue of Pharmaceutical Biology were first presented at a symposium at the AAAS Annual Meeting in 2000 in Washington, DC.
In Asia and North America, the magnolia is used in indigenous herbal medicine. Credit: Wolfgang Schuhly
"This sort of cooperation among international researchers is extremely important now, when so many developing countries rich in biodiversity are denying access to foreign researchers because of biopiracy," says Marina Ratchford, guest editor of the publication and director of the Latin America and the Caribbean program at AAAS. "Collaboration of this kind can lead to a renewed sense of trust that will make further research possible."
Mankind has used natural substances for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Evidence of such use has been documented as far back as 2900 B.C. in Egypt. And both China's Materia Medica and India's Ayurvedic System recorded ancient medicinal uses in written form more than 3000 years ago.
In the issue of Pharmaceutical Biology, the authors describe the role that ethnobotany plays in discovering and documenting the practice of traditional medicine. Concerned with the study of the relationship between plants and people, the field of ethnobotany also serves as a resource for traditional knowledge about medicinal uses of biological substances. In recent years, pharmaceutical companies have become interested in ethnobotany, using the research to identify viable plants as a possible source of more effective and marketable drugs.
International Effort Required
According to authors Gordon M. Cragg and David J. Newman of the National Cancer Institute, less than one percent of the microbial world is currently known, implying "a vast untapped reservoir of genetic and metabolic diversity." Cragg and Newman suggest that recent advances in decoding the human genome as well as the genomes of other biological substances will help in the discovery of new and effective disease-fighting drugs, but noted that such an effort requires considerable effort.
"The investigation of these resources requires multi-disciplinary, national, and international collaboration in the discovery and development process," Cragg and Newman wrote in an abstract describing their conclusions.
They noted that the National Cancer Institute is looking into methods of treating cancer using existing approaches gleaned from sources of traditional knowledge, but cautioned that research in this area is still very new and that certain precautions should be taken. Without legitimate oversight, substances may be "over-harvested," and sources of traditional knowledge could disappear.
Cathoranthus rosens, or periwinkle, is a source of vincristine, a drug that has improved the odds of surviving childhood leukemia from one in twenty to nineteen in twenty.
Authors Salomao O. Bandeira, and F.P. Pagula of the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, and F. Gaspar, of the Mozambican Ministry of Health, described traditional medical practices that relieve symptoms associated with anemia, respiratory and sexual complaints, and HIV.
In cases of malaria, for example, the authors wrote, "traditional medicine seems to be rather helpful in healing...symptoms such as fever, vomits, and diarrhoea."
Conserving Intellectual Property Rights
Intervention from the outside world can lead to a loss in intellectual property rights for indigenous groups, as happened to the Kung bushman of South Africa, who had been the first people known to use pieces of the Hoodia cactus to stave off hunger. A British company patented the active ingredient of the cactus, which it calls P57.
A solution to this problem, according to Paul Alan Cox, another contributor to the publication, might be to share the benefits of drug development between sources of indigenous knowledge and drug companies. As a model, Cox cited a recent agreement between Samoan villagers and the AIDS Research Alliance. Researchers had extracted an anti-viral compound, prostratin, from Homalanthus Nutans, a tree whose bark had been used as traditional medicine in the Samoan village of Falealupo. Villagers were promised more than $480,000 in in-kind contributions, and the AIDS Research Alliance guaranteed they would receive 20 percent of future profits from production of the drug.
8 July 2002