Companies rush to patent wildlife of the Philippines
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On 1 Feb 2001, at 8:49, GENET wrote:
genet-news mailing list
TITLE: Companies rush to patent wildlife of the Philippines
SOURCE: Earth Times News Service, by michael A. Bengwayan
DATE: January 15, 2001
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html
Companies rush to patent wildlife of the Philippines
ANILA, Philippines--There is a silent but reckless "gold rush" in
Asia. One where a handful of genomic companies and their
pharmaceutical partners are rushing to privatize the genes of plants,
animals and humans to sell for profit. The commodity they seek to
exploit is not gold but biological information. The raw material they
need is human DNA: that make up genes of human life, plant, and
genes. They are the gene hunters and have invaded the Philippine
shores. Already, biopirates, skirting the loosely- crafted
anti-biopiracy law in the Philippines and with the help of some
Philippine scientists, have successfully acquired patents for a pain-
killing snail, a cancer-curing tree and several vegetables and fruit
that are remedies to diabetes.
The Philippine sea snail (Conus magus) has already been patented by
Neurex, Inc. a US-based pharmaceutical company and has earned millions
of dollars for the company. Neurex, with the help of scientists from
the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines
(UP-MSI) and the University of Utah, have been isolating from the
snail a toxin called SNX- 111 which is a pain killer that is reported
by scientists to be 1,000 times more powerful than morphine.
SNX-111 or Ziconitide was recently reported by Rosemarie Foster of
Drug Infoline as having been issued a letter of approval by the US
Food and Drug Administration on June 28 last year for treatment of
chronic pain. The drug will be marketed by the company Elan
The report added that Zoconitide is 100 to 1,000 times more potent
than morphine, so potent to completely paralyze a fish within a matter
of seconds. SNX 111 blocks critical openings in nerve cells,
interrupting pain signals on their journey through the spinal cord to
the brain. It is administered through a small tube directly into the
During the first year that the pain killer SNX-111 was marketed, it
has earned Neurex more than $80 million. Neurex has entered into a
marketing deal with Warner Lambert, one of the world's major
international pharmaceutical companies to further push the product.
SNX-111 will be worth more when sold outside the US. Another medical
company, the US-owned Medtronic which specializes in medicinal plants,
has signed a contract with Neurex, to sell the pain killer SNX-111.
As a pain killer, it is important in hospitals, drugstores and most
especially, to the growing number of battlefields worldwide. There are
also reports that the toxin from the snail is being tested for
insecticidal properties to fight insects pests that have developed
resistance to most chemicals.
Neurex owns all three patents of the Philippine sea snail under US
Patent numbers 5189,020, 5559,095 and lastly 5587,454 which is
referred to the snail toxin treatment for victims of stroke.
The controversial twist in the discovery of the toxin is that
government- paid Philippine scientists, using government money,
collaborated to form and finance a private company called Gene Seas
Asia to capitalize in the commercial value of the snail which
ultimately led not only to the foreign ownership of the snail, but to
the exploitation of the same by a foreign company.
As such, Gene Seas Asia and UP-MSI connections are then siphoning and
circumventing public funds to promote private research for private
individuals, and eventually private income. As such, the arrangement
between both institutions may be violating provisions of Executive
Order 247 which poorly provides the government's guidelines against
bio- prospecting but is silent on biopiracy. Biopiracy is the
exploration, extraction and screening of biological diversity and
indigenous knowledge for commercial, genetic and biochemical purposes.
Philippine endemic plants have not been spared. "Ampalaya" or bitter
gourd (Momordica charantia) is now privately-owned by the US National
Institute of Health, the US Army and the New York University which
have successfully gained the US patent numbers US 5484889, JP 6501089
and EP 553357, respectively, on the Vitamin A-rich vegetable.
Ampalaya, mixed with another Philippine vegetable "talong" or eggplant
(Solanum melongena) are traditional food that make up the Philippine
delicacy "pinakbet", an effective cure against diabetes.
Today, scientists from the US pharmaceutical company Cromak Research,
Inc. in New Jersey has started raking in profits reaching to as high
as $500 million from a anti-diabetic product extracted from the two
vegetables. Diabetes, together with cancer and tuberculosis, was named
recently by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a leading disease
for this new century.
The diabetic remedy was granted the US patent number 5900240 for
Cromak. It is taken as a dietary supplement. The importance of the
diabetic drug is crucial not only to some 22 million Americans who are
afflicted by the disease yearly, 200,000 of whom die yearly, but also
to 170 million others in developing nations, epidemiologist Venkat
Narayan of the Diabetes International Foundation said.
Talong and ampalaya are low-calorie traditional Philippine food which
have contributed largely to the prevention of diabetes among
Filipinos, according to diabetologists Dr. Julie C. Cabato and Dr.
Marcelino Salango. Both lowers glucose level in blood thus lessening
possibility of diabetes especially for the aging and obese people as
well as those who lead sedentary lifestyles, they added.
The piracy of biodiversity has also claimed the Philippine yew tree
(Taxus sumatrana) which has been reported by the government's
Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) as having been
patented by the University of Philadelphia. Sandra Buking, senior
science research specialist of DENR said two scientists from the
university were given a DENR permit to collect specimen of the tree in
1998 in the mossy montane forest of Mount Pulag, the country's second
The scientists reported that the tree, found only in Mount Pulag,
contained taxol, a cancer-curing chemical, according to DENR. However,
Buking mentioned that the scientists stopped communicating with DENR
even after a number of requests were made by the agency to the
The biopiracy of plants and animals puts ownership of these valuable
resources into the hands of the few companies which can control the
storage, patenting, licensing, reproduction and sale. As it is, the
Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) in its publication
"Issues and Trends in Biodiversity: Conserving Indigenous Knowledge",
70 percent of the genetic diversity of the world's 20 major food crops
have been lost from farmers' fields and the remaining 30 percent are
controlled by food and pharmaceutical giants.
It further said that 68 percent of all crop seeds collected in
developing countries and 85 percent of all fetal populations of
livestock breeds are stored in genebanks in industrialized countries
or in international agricultural research centers.
In the Philippines alone, some 150 traditional rice varieties are
stored at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and are
being used to breed input intensive artificial varieties which are
then sold back to the farmers for planting.
The piracy of biodiversity in the Philippines is made worse by the
inadequate provisions as well as limited implementation of Executive
Order 247 which provides policies on bioprospecting but says nothing
on biopiracy. Biopriacy is done by multinational firms and governments
of developed countries which patent and map chromosomes of genetic
resources without informing, consulting, acknowledging and duly
compensating the resources.
The most well known biopiracy in the Philippines is the theft of an
antibiotic extract from a soil in the province of Iloilo which became
the world-known drug erythromycin. It was isolated by a Philippine
scientist Abelardo Aguilar who was then working with the Eli Lilly Co.
and who was from the province of Iloilo. Upon Aguilar's discovery of
the new drug, he was promised by Eli Lilly a hefty share of the
profits. Despite the millions of dollars earned by erythromycin and
with the Philippine government's intervention that Aguilar be
recognized and be given a share, Aguilar and his relatives received
nothing until recently.
Human tissues are even being owned by companies through human tissue
piracy and tissue culture. Tissue culture is the reproduction of a
microorganism, plant and animal cells in the laboratory. The culture
of human cells is crucial for the biotechnology industry. When kept
under proper conditions, "immortalized" human cells can produce in
perpetuity and provide an infinite quantity of cells that contain the
unique DNA of the original tissue donor or "tricked donor" as in the
case of indigenous people who gave away a part of their lives without
Last year, two Philippine nongovernment organizations, the Cordillera
Peoples Alliance (CPA) and the Igorot Tribal Assistance Group
(ITAG)--of which this reporter is a former director--,which work on
rural development and environmental concerns bared that some Ifugao
tribes people were lured into sharing their blood to foreign
scientists who posed as medical researchers. Nothing was heard from
the scientists after they collected blood and hair samples from the
Followingly, the Baguio City-based United Nations (UN) accredited
Indigenous Peoples International Center for Policy Research and
Education or Tebtebba Foundation, reported that Aeta tribespeople
displaced by the Mount Pinatubo eruption in the province of Zambales
were tricked into giving blood samples to a foreign medical team who
presented themselves as aid workers.
Vicky Tauli Corpuz who heads Tebtebba and sits as the chairperson of
the UN Indigenous Peoples Volunteer Fund says "the biopiracy of
indigenous peoples'plants and animals is a clear demonstration of
disrespect for indigenous peoples rights; the attempts to gather human
tissues from indigenous peoples clearly is an exploitation which
should be condemned by governments."
Mary Carling who heads the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) in the
Philippines condemned the tissue piracy in strong terms saying
"biopiracy is an extension of the imperialist policies of global
corporations to whose ultimate aim is to control the world's
It should be recalled that in 1996, Hagahai tribes peoples in Papua
New Guinea gave blood, tissue, and hair samples to American
anthropologist Carol Jenkins in exchange for soap, candies and
chocolates. Unknown to the Hagahais, their tissues were used to create
an anti-leukemia drug. The tribe's blood contained HTLV-1 which is
resistant to the illness. The Hagahais, through interceding NGOs sued
to the World Court and have been compensated recently for the theft of
their tissues but the patent remains with Jenkins and her company.
Many in the Philippines are now protesting against the onslaught of
biopirates on biodiversity, traditional knowledge and indigenous
systems. One of these, the Philippine Indigenous Peoples Network say
the UN Convention of Biodiversity (UNCBD) should impose a deterring
punishment to any company or institute seeking a patent based on
indigenous products and knowledge.
But this is easier said than done. In a country where poverty is
prevalent and the administrative systems are not functioning well,
even the indigenous people are being forced to gamble their last
remaining natural resources of biodiversity and indigenous
knowledge-for a decent meal. What with the government's Indigenous
Peoples' Rights Act (IPRA), the government program for the upliftment
of its ethnic population, officially unimplemented.
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