February 23, 2009
In the first step by a developing country to stop multinational companies patenting traditional remedies from local plants and animals, the Indian government has effectively licensed 200,000 local treatments as "public property" free for anyone to use but no one to sell as a "brand".
The move comes after scientists in Delhi noticed an alarming trend - the "bio-prospecting" of natural remedies by companies abroad. After trawling through the records of the global trademark offices, officials found 5,000 patents had been issued - at a cost of at least $150m (£104m) - for "medical plants and traditional systems".
"More than 2,000 of these belong to the Indian systems of medicine ... We began to ask why multinational companies were spending millions of dollars to patent treatments that so many lobbies in Europe deny work at all," said Dr Vinod Kumar Gupta, who heads the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, which lists in encyclopaedic detail the 200,000 treatments.
The database, which took 200 researchers eight years to compile by meticulously translating ancient Indian texts, will now be used by the European Patent Office to check against "bio-prospectors".
Gupta points out that in Brussels alone there had been 285 patents for medicinal plants whose uses had long been known in the three principal Indian systems: ayurveda, India's traditional medical treatment; unani, a system believed to have come to India via ancient Greece; and siddha, one of India's oldest health therapies, from the south.
Researchers found that in Europe one company had patented an Indian creeping plant known as Brahmi - Bacopa monnieri - for a memory enhancer. Another patent was awarded for aloe vera for its use as a mouth ulcer treatment.
"We have shown the authorities that ayurveda, unani and siddha medicinal uses were known in India. We would like the patents therefore lifted," said Gupta.
In the past India has had to go to court to get patents revoked. Officials say that to lift patents from medicines created from turmeric and neem, an Indian tree, it spent more than $5m. In the case of the neem patent, the legal battle took almost 10 years.
"We won because we proved these were part of traditional Indian knowledge. There was no innovation and therefore no patent should be granted," said Gupta.
Yoga, too, is considered a traditional medicine and one that is already a billion-dollar industry in the US. Gupta said the Indian government had already asked the US to register yoga as a "well-known" mark and raised concerns over the 130 yoga-related patents issued.
We want no one to appropriate the yoga brand for themselvesThere are 1,500 asanas [yogic poses] and exercises given in our ancient texts. We are transcribing these so they too cannot be appropriated by anyone.
"We have had instances where people have patented a yoga technique by describing a certain temperature. This is simply wrong."
India is also unusual in that it has seven national medical systems - of which modern medicine is but one. Almost four-fifths of India's billion people use traditional medicine and there are 430,000 ayurvedic medical practitioners registered by the government in the country. The department overseeing the traditional medical industry, known as Ayush, has a budget of 10bn rupees ($260m).
India's battle to protect its traditional treatments is rooted in the belief that the developing world's rich biodiversity is a potential treasure trove of starting material for new drugs and crops. Gupta said that it costs the west $15bn and 15 years to produce a "blockbuster drug". A patent lasts for 20 years, so a pharmaceutical company has just five years to recover its costs - which makes conventional treatments expensive.
"If you can take a natural remedy and isolate the active ingredient then you just need drug trials and the marketing. Traditional medicine could herald a new age of cheap drugs."
Medicines ancient and modern
Ginger: Patented to treat obesity. However, officials have found that in a Siddha preparation, extracts of ginger root are used in a treatment for obesity
Citrus peel extract: Patented to treat skin disorders and injuries. Recorded in Ayurvedic texts as a key ingredient to treat skin diseases
Phyllanthus amarus (Himalayan stem herb): Patented "for the inhibition of the replication of a nucleosidic inhibitor resistant retrovirus and/or a non-nucleosidic inhibitor-resistant retrovirus, wherein said retrovirus is an HIV." Indian traditional texts show the drug is used for immuno-suppressive emaciating diseases
Brassica rapa (mustard): Patented to normalise bowel function or for the prevention of colonic cancer. Unani has for years prescribed it for stomach ailments