Friday, 11 May 2012

Drug discovery and Biopiracy

On May 9th, the University of Buckingham UK, received a privileged visit. Prof Graham Dutfield from the University of Leeds gave as a talk regarding a paper that he published last year in the topic of 'Traditional Knowledge, drug discovery and patent-based Biopiracy’ (European Intellectual Property Review 33(4)).

The (TK) King and I
Room F06 was packed and hot -- I am not sure if the topic was a boiling one or it was a warm date BUT at the end of the date, we did have some sizzling questions. The mixture of the audience was from different areas such as: Medical Law and Ethics, Intellectual Property Law; Environmental Law, Human Rights and Tort.

Prof Graham started by explaining the term biopiracy – but very carefully challenging on whether the word should be coined. Anyways, he continued to say that it could be regarded as misappropriation [most people called stealing] of biological resources or traditional knowledge (TK) through the patent system; and/or it is the unauthorised collection [once again most people called stealing] for commercial ends of genetic resources of TK. I mentioned the word ‘stealing’ because it is the people’s common word – not the lawyery one.

The talk proceeded deeper into the issue: is TK important in the pharmaceutical industry? and if it is so, what part or role, if any, TK takes into the invention per se? To patent an invention there are some requirements that need to be fulfilled: novelty (new) and inventive step (non-obvious) – and industrial application, but focus being today in the first one. Is it new or novel the use of specific plants (containing some chemical properties) for the purpose of the cure/ treatment of ‘x’ disease? As Prof Graham mentioned, it may be new to us BUT not new perhaps to an indigenous healer – the query is: does this destroy novelty? Novelty is destroyed by use and/or publication. Yet, the problem with this issue is: how will a Patent Officer, let’s say in the UK, become aware of the use of this invention in a small village community of indigenous people in the Amazon? It is not common for healers or the said community to document this and what is more, sometimes they do not even share this knowledge with their own community but passes that info to a worthy Indian– it is a ritual (we called a trade secret). This is indeed a very difficult issue because in our world we need evidence.

How can we help? To document or not to document
I am afraid I do not have an answer. In one side of the coin, to document will give protection not only in situations of Patent and other intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), and moreover, will be helpful in cases of entitlement of land and preserving their culture. There is indeed the traditional knowledge digital library in place; but, on the other side of the coin, indigenous peoples want to keep their identity, heritage, autonomy, so why do they need to disclose their way of living? We need to remember that their purpose of life is not material to them. Their spirituality (not religion as such) is based on what they called ‘cosmovision’. It means people do not have hierarchy! Everything is part of the ‘one’ i.e. animals, land, people, plants; they all are part of the one cosmos. That is the reason why I cannot make my mind – I cannot recommend with a blind eye the documentation of this rituals. It is asking for transformation –perhaps an involuntary transformation and this may have negative effects.

The lecture of course covered many more issues, but this is the one that I felt needed some addressing today, perhaps tomorrow or another day I will cover other issues. Many thanks to Prof Graham for given us not only the time and his valuable knowledge BUT given us the chance to open our minds in a very interesting topic.

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