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Vol. 27 No. 6
November-December 2005

Up for Discussion | A forum for members and member organizations to share ideas and concerns.
Send your comments by e-mail to edit.ci@iupac.org

Emerging Issues in Developing Countries

This series seeks to inform readers, explore new ideas, and promote discussion on themes related to developing countries and emerging analytical communities. Articles in this series are available from <www.iupac.org/publications/ci/indexes/emerging-issues.html>.

Natural Products, a Possibility for the R&D of Drugs for Developing Countries

by Antonio Monge

“You see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things as they never were and ask ‘Why not?’" (George Bernard Shaw)

Natural products of plant origin are of special importance to developing countries. Traditional medicine, which utilizes these compounds, is of great interest and very useful to societies in every continent. In these societies the inventors of therapeutic applications of a plant are not recognized as such. The work is seen as the result of the relationship of man with nature, which remains recorded in the collective knowledge and wisdom of the society. It also appears in the legacy of generations passed down to the men and women of today. Popular opinion makes it a part of the cultural heritage. Conservation of biodiversity and knowledge of the traditional native medicine have often been of seminal importance in the discovery of new drugs. Obviously, this conception differs greatly from the ideas held by developed societies. The ethical demand in the relationships between both parties makes the disconnection striking.

Scientists who research medicinal agents from natural products often encounter a problem that is not well resolved by political institutions and therefore has a deleterious effect on everyone involved, including native populations. The developing countries have the discovery, and the knowledge, but not the means to translate them into tangible products and businesses (i.e., to make a protected invention and bring the benefits back to their society).

Societies differ in what they consider to be common or sacred. It is evident that the first group is susceptible to being patented, while the second group is not. This is most important to keep in mind when dealing with natural products, of animal or plant origin, in the idiosyncrasy of native communities. Symbiotic relationships between man and nature are brought into play. Here, man forms an important part, even though he may depend on technology in order to establish the relationship. One such example is the relationship that can be established between traditional agriculture and the agriculture of today, in which work is carried out with modified seeds.

It is essential that we develop a mechanism to take into consideration the enormous quantity of captive knowledge in developing societies. This will only come to light if systems of recognition are facilitated, as was done previously for other societies when they were initiating their own development. One must keep in mind an important element: equity of treatment.

The system of patents in developed countries was not designed to protect community intellectual property or knowledge. There is no way to recognize such “inventions” in terms of an inventor and, hence, an owner of the invention. When a native community discovers, via spiritual healers, observation, or other methods, any given biological activity in a plant, it is very difficult to establish ownership. In this type of situation, it is not clear to whom recognition should be given; the numerous possibilities include the spiritual healers, the native community, and the country itself.

But when knowledge about a folk medicine is used as the basis of the development of a new drug, with a patentable structure and demonstrated activity, how should the developing society be recognized? The organization that turns such knowledge into a marketable product needs some form of incentive to carry out the development but they would seek to recover its costs (and make a profit) through patent protection. This requires the organization to reveal its discovery, which may or may not be a gain to society.

How do patents contribute indirectly to the common good? This may be a bit ambiguous and confusing, especially with regard to where the limit of the “common good” lies.

Every country has the right to development and especially to an education and to health care. However, health care is conditioned by the availability of medicines. In the invention, development, and production of medicinal agents—cornerstones of any society—no country can remain excluded; to do so would be to deny it the capacity to develop universal healthcare.
So how can a developing country gain from work based on community knowledge? Should the patent be a partnership? Should it be licensed freely or are other models for recognition possible? At the very least, can arrangements be developed so that a developing country does not have to pay the patent premium to use the drugs based on their intellectual property.

The author wishes to thank the IUPAC Subcommittee on Medicinal Chemistry and Drug Development and former Medicinal Chemistry Section for their interesting contributions.

Antonio Monge <cifa@unav.es> is a professor of medicinal chemistry and director of Centro de Investigación en Farmacobiología Aplicada at the Universidad de Navarra, in Pamplona, Spain. He is a member of the IUPAC Subcommittee on Medicinal Chemistry and Drug Development.


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