There is a silent but reckless “gold rush” in Asia. One where a handful of genomic companies and their pharma- ceutical 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 animal 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, 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 Corporation.
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 spinal cord.
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.
Biopiracy is the exploration, extraction and screening of biological diversity and indigenous knowledge for commercial, genetic and bio- chemical 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 egg- plant (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 lessen- ing possibility of diabetes especially for the aging and obese people as well as those who lead sedentary lifestyles, they added.
The piracy of biodiversity also threatens the Philippine yew tree (Taxus sumatrana) which has been reported by the government’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) as having aroused interest by a US university. A 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 highest mountain.
The scientists reported that the tree, found only in Mount Pulag, contains taxol, a cancer-curing chemical.
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 devel- oping 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 govern- ments 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 Phil- ippine 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 erythromy- cin 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 their knowing.
Last year, two Philippine nongovernment organizations, working 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 ethnic peoples.
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 once headed 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 whoose ultimate aim is to control the world’s resources”.
It should be recalled that in 1996, Hagahai tribes peoples in Papua New Guinea gave blood, tissue, and hair samples to American anthro- pologist 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.
Many in the Philippines are unaware of 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 deter- ring 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, some indigenous people are being forced to gamble their last remaining natural resources of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge for a decent meal.