Gene Piracy

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TIM McGIRK New DelhiA primitive tribe in the Andaman Islands off India's eastern coast may have found a cure for malaria, but scientists won't be able to test this potentially life-saving drug anytime soon. Debaprasad Chattopadhyay, the Indian microbiologist who discovered the tribe's secret, is refusing to publish the formula--to protect the tribe, he says, and to foil his superiors' attempts to profit from it. And so he has become an unlikely activist in the controversial field of bio-prospecting, the international quest to track down in remote areas medically and scientifically useful--and patentable--substances. It's a hunt critics call gene piracy.Chattopadhyay's tale begins with a 1993 expedition through the dense rain forests of the Andamans to visit the Onge tribe. The biologist noticed that, although the Onge were surrounded by mosquitoes, none caught malaria. Befriending the tribe, Chattopadhyay was led into one of the Onge's smoky, beehive-shaped huts and shown a pot containing a bitter, medicinal brew. He was given several of the plants that went into the potion. Back in his laboratory in the Andaman town of Port Blair, he came upon what he claims was a remarkable discovery: two of the plants contained anti-fever properties and a third reduced the number of malarial parasites in infected human blood. Chattopadhyay soon had a chance to test the Onge's medicine. After several jungle visits, he came down with malarial fever. He swallowed juice from the extract and was cured in three days; his fever has not resurfaced. He also asked local doctors to experiment on patients suffering from other strains of malaria, including falciparum, which can be fatal. Again the brew appeared to be effective on each of the seven patients treated.Although the test group was too small to be conclusive, the findings were encouraging. A remedy for malaria might be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to a pharmaceutical company. The disease kills more than 2 million people a year, mainly in the sweltering latitudes of Africa, Asia and Latin America. The biologist envisioned himself becoming famous and rich; he also envisioned, he now says, that some of the royalties would go to protect the Onge. Fewer than 100 tribesmen survive, and their habitat is vanishing. Onge means the perfect men in the tribe's language, and for perhaps 1,000 years such faith in their uniqueness was unshakable. The biologist hoped profits from the Onge's formula could help the tribe safeguard its primitive paradise. Says Samir Acharya, a social activist and friend: As protectors of biodiversity, he felt that the Onge deserved some reward.It was not to be. Chattopadhyay discovered that a superior at his government-run research center had planned to file a patent application in his own name for the malaria cure. When the superior demanded that the biologist reveal the plant names, he refused. Back in Port Blair, his boss, Subhash K. Saigal, dismisses the biologist's claims. He contends that the research was still at a preliminary, laboratory stage. That young scientist got over-excited, Saigal says. Chattopadhyay himself concedes it's possible that the Onge, like some African tribes, may possess a mutant sickle-shaped gene that provides them with immunity from malaria. But authorities won't allow him to return to the Onge's remote home to conduct any further tests.PAGE 1  |    |    |    |  
 
The battle over the Onge's potion is no isolated case. Breakthroughs in computer technology, genetic engineering and other realms of biology have led to a veritable gold rush to the rain forests and mountain ranges of the tropical latitudes. It's in these spots that most of the world's plants and animals are found. Around a quarter of all prescription drugs sold in the United States are believed to be based on chemicals derived from only 40 plant species. So far, fewer than 1% of the world's 265,000 flowering plants have been tested for their curative powers.And so the bio-sleuths are everywhere. These hardy researchers, equipped with laptops and backpacks filled with tools for collecting samples, are busy extracting the saliva of vampire bats from Mexico and clinically testing it for a substance that might dissolve blood clots in humans; they have patented a sacred Amazonian psychedelic brew, ayuasca; they are spooning microscopic fungus from the soil in Panama. In southern India, botanists are spending time with Irula tribesmen in hopes of determining which berries and plants local medicine men use to cure cobra bites. Taxol, a drug derived from bark found in the rain forest, has been tested as a possible preventive for several types of cancer. Says Helena Paul of London's Gaia Foundation, which promotes biological and cultural diversity: It's a prospecting fever--like how people used to go to the Yukon to pan for gold. Only now, these prospectors don't stake claims on land but on substances that can be as tiny as a single gene from a bacterium. Indeed, scientists are busy mapping and exploring the human body's 80,000 genes, snipping off DNA strands and rushing to patent offices--sometimes with just the smallest clue as to what these chemical configurations might do, hoping they will eventually lead to cures that will bring riches and renown. Says Paul: You might just happen to patent the most valuable thing in creation.Everyone, naturally, stands to gain from new treatments that will help people live longer, healthier lives. But the perplexing question is: Who should reap the profits? Everybody wants a piece of the genetic motherlode, and a complex global battle is shaping up over its ownership. The contest pits industrialized nations against the developing world, multinational companies against ecologists and social activists, and governments against their own tribal people. Not only are these gene wars a threat to scientific advancement--some countries, including India, China and Brazil, are trying to restrict access to their rich biospheres for fear of plunder--but they also raise an ethical dilemma: Should a government, company or scientist have the right to claim ownership to the innermost workings of a living organism?It's like putting a price tag on an act of God. Patenting life is a frightening prospect, says Isabelle Meister, a Greenpeace campaigner on gene-technology issues. Indeed, companies often end up trying to pass off as invention what are in fact discoveries--glimpses, really--into the magical processes roiling in nature's crucible. Genuine scientific exploration, warn some biologists, can easily be blocked by private companies that have nailed up no trespassing signs on the DNA double helix.  |  2  |    |    |  
 
The confrontation between industrialized countries and resource-rich emerging nations is heating up. Drug companies have been methodically testing animals and medicinal plants for decades. But now, innovations in genetic research are enabling scientists to cast a far wider net--covering entire rain forests, from the largest banyan tree to the smallest bacterium--in their search for cures. We see a tremendous battle shaping up, says Andrew Kimbrell, director of the International Center for Technology Assessment in Washington. The fight, he says, will be fought in part over how to revise world trade laws. Some Western countries want to exempt plants and animals from being covered by international property rights. Third world countries, says Kimbrell, are certain to object. The Convention on Biodiversity, drafted in 1992, is the closest the world community has come to tackling the dispute. But there is no consensus. The U.S., which has the greatest number of biological research labs, refuses to ratify the convention. Congress blocked it, Kimbrell says, because there's a certain element opposed to all international environmental efforts. They feel it limits U.S. options.Well-intended though it may be, the convention's provisions are impossible to police. Bio-pirates are notoriously hard to catch; they don't need to smuggle tons of a medicinal plant out of a country, just a tiny sample so that a specimen's genetic code of DNA can be replicated in a lab. Brazilian scientists, for example, are studying a frog that's used to cure intestinal diseases by members of the Yawanawa Indian tribes on the banks of the Rio Gregorio. According to anthropologists, tribesmen force the ailing person to drink a potent brew. Then they grab his arms and legs and dangle him over the edge of a precipice. Finally they place the saliva of the frog on a pointed stick and jab the stick into the patient's arm, injecting the saliva into his bloodstream. The patient begins to tremble, heaves everything in his stomach over the precipice--and is cured. If a drug can be developed, future doctors can forgo the jabbing and the hanging upside down.Some gene rustlers also view humans as fair game. Isolated tribes are sought for their unique resistance--or in some cases vulnerability--to certain diseases. According to Isidro Shia, a pharmacologist at the University of the Philippines, U.S. scientists posing as anthropologists have been gathering tissue samples from ethnic communities in the Luzon region known for their immunity to cancer and diabetes. Reports of exploitation--even piracy--are becoming more persistent, says Dr. Juan Flavier, a senator in Manila. For some Indian tribes in the Amazon, stealing a person's blood is the same as stealing his soul or shadow. Nonetheless, gene pirates have taken blood samples of Caiapo Indians and patented their genetic characteristics, alleges the Brasilia-based Socio Environment Institute. In Beijing, a study of 10,000 elderly Chinese administered by Duke University encountered similar complaints. A former employee of the China Research Center on Aging accused his superiors of colluding with the Americans by exporting blood samples containing the secrets of longevity and Chinese genetic codes. The charges were denied by the research institute.Much of the world's genetic bounty is stored in biological banks, which contain up to 100,000 gene samples apiece. For decades, drug companies and agribusiness firms have been tapping these resources without paying anything to countries where the genes were found. In the future, gene hunters won't even have to trudge through jungles. As we learn more about how the body works, drug companies will be able to tailor specific treatments to each individual. The route leading from a customized drug back to the original genetic clue found, say, in a Third World rain forest, will become circuitous and virtually untraceable. That is why environmentalists are in such a hurry to protect the biological rights of developing nations.  |    |  3  |    |  
 
There's no doubt that some of these products can revolutionize the lives of millions, which makes it worthwhile for companies to dispatch gene hunters to the most desolate corners on earth. Blood samples collected from the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha, a wind-scoured island in the South Atlantic, led to the 1997 discovery of an asthma gene by scientists working for German pharmaceutical firm Boehringer Ingelheim, in collaboration with Sequana Therapeutics of the U.S. The gene may lead to treatments that will help hundreds of millions of asthma sufferers breathe easier.But finding the right gene or chemical sequence can be like looking for a needle in an Everest-sized haystack. One shortcut researchers rely on, increasingly, is the knowledge of tribal shamans and medicine men. No longer do scientists simply dismiss witchdoctors' bat-wing remedies. Potions that call for toadstools plucked from a graveyard or the blood of a black rooster may indeed have some scientific basis beyond superstition. Scientists who are cataloguing rain-forest plants have noted that climate, soil and location all influence the type of tissues and enzymes produced by the flora.Like the Onge's bitter brew, these native concoctions can provide the first breakthrough in the long process toward developing a drug. Borrowing or stealing a tribe's lore of indigenous plants and animals can help a pharmaceutical company save years of hit-and-miss testing and millions of dollars in research. In India we have over 5,000 tribes, says P.S. Ramakrishnan, an ecology professor at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. It's impossible to find a plant species that isn't being used by one tribe or another.In India alone, according to eco-activist Vandana Shiva, the medicinal properties of at least 22 plants, which had been used traditionally to cure diseases ranging from high blood pressure to rheumatic fever, have been patented internationally by scientists and drug companies from India and abroad. Profits can be enormous. A Frenchman patented an extract made from the bark of an African Pygeum tree, which native healers had used as a cure for old men's disease--enlargement of the prostate, an ailment common among elderly males. Throughout Africa, hundreds of tons of bark are being harvested, much of it illegally, and the tree may be on the verge of extinction. Sales of products derived from Pygeum bark amount to more than $220 million a year.  |    |    |  4  |  
 
For some activists, this is gene imperialism, akin to the bygone exploitation of mineral deposits with scant benefit to the land's original inhabitants. The biodiversity treaty recognizes that, as custodians of the biosphere, indigenous people should receive some reward if, say, a drug company or an agribusiness firm develops a product based on traditional resources or wisdom. But according to Christoph Then of the Munich-based organization No Patent to Life, pharmaceutical companies rarely pass on a fair share of their profits to the countries that provide the raw genetic material. While many tribesmen are reluctant to share their knowledge with outsiders, some are willing to pass on their secrets for a pittance. Kunjira Moolya, 66, is a landless laborer wandering the misty hills of southern India. He is also a medicine man who, for free, will use the herbs and plants of the rain forest to try to cure snake bites, asthma and epilepsy. Even in his remote hamlet, Moolya was tracked down by researchers from a German pharmaceutical concern, who, according to Indian ecologists, gave him the equivalent of $5 for his medicinal recipes of herbal cures. In some cases, the government gets paid by the company, but the money may never reach the local community, says Mark Hill, spokesman for Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis International. For the companies, too, it's a risky business. Even with help from indigenous experts, the odds of developing a profitable medicine from a new chemical compound are daunting. Novartis estimates that only one in 10,000 potentially viable compounds actually makes it onto drugstore shelves. Researching and launching a new drug can take eight-to-12 years and cost $350 million, Hill says. The payoff, however, can easily cover development costs. Novartis' top-selling drug Sandeimmun/Neoral (Cyclosporin), used to prevent the body's rejection of a new organ after a transplant, racked up $97 million in sales last year.Only big, global businesses can afford to gamble that much time and money on launching a new drug. Costa Rica, a tiny country that's home to about 5% of the world's biodiversity, decided to bring in outsiders to protect its riches. To help finance a mammoth inventory of its estimated 500,000 animal species and plants, the country's National Biodiversity Institute cut a deal with more than a dozen private companies hoping to share in the findings. But some conservationists contend that at least a part of future royalties should be given to the locals who helped guide taxonomists to the right genes in the tangled labyrinth of the rain forest. Says Indian environmentalist Ashish Kothari: Once you have the traditional knowledge, the chance of finding useful genetic sources increases dramatically. In China and India, countries with systems of natural medicine dating back thousands of years, officials are protective of their genetic property. Ecologists warn darkly of a coming gene war between industrialized and emerging nations.It's an emotive subject, with ecologists accusing Western companies of tampering with nature out of greed. In India, thousands of protesters rallied last summer against foreign companies' attempts to patent the active ingredients in natural remedies such as turmeric and the neem tree. In China last year, scientists urged the government to prevent international companies from exploiting the country's biological resources. Zhu Lihuang, deputy director of the Institute of Genetics in Beijing, is opposed. Western scientists worry about a gene war here, that China will close its doors, he says. But we get more from an open door.If cash-poor countries start fencing off their gene pools, everyone will suffer. Of course multinationals want to make money, but who else is going to pour in the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to develop a cancer drug, or a high-yielding wheat hybrid? We are equally responsible for the things we fail to do, says Dietmar Mieth, a professor of theological ethics at Germany's University of Tubingen, No one can deny that we need new healing methods, that there are scourges of God. At the same time, though, man's initial forays into the frontiers of genetics should surely have larger goals than just profit. Biological claim-jumping on the structures of DNA and the theft of biosphere treasures can only hinder scientific progress by emphasizing greed over good. Until adequate safeguards are designed and enforced, the Onge and other tribes might as well keep their secrets to themselves.With reporting by Helena Bachmann/Geneva, Sol Biderman/Sao Paulo, Tessa Bold/Bonn, Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi, Clive Mutiso/Nairobi, Christine Pratt/San Jose, Mia Turner/Beijing and bureau reports  |    |    |    |  5