Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Eloy Rodriguez:

One of the consistently heard stories about the value of the jungles and the cultures that inhabit them is the potential for medicinal chemicals extracted from the inhabitants knowledge of the flora. We are hearing this story again, but this time it is focused on the sea, in coral reef communities and in benthic (deep sea) bacterial communities.

While I don't deny that those chemicals are there, and that local knowledge has discovered many of them, it's a sad fact that their discovery by Western science often dooms their use. Lost both to the locals, who begin to lose oral traditions with greater exposure to the outside, but also to us. And it is simply because of the way our market works. If a scientist goes in and discovers a potentially wonderful new drug, and publishes in the open literature, that very drug loses all its potential competitive advantage for a drug company, and is much less likely to be picked up for the necessary R&D to turn into a marketable product. Many medically active chemicals have already been lost this way -- yes, they are out there, but no company can find a way to make money from them, and so they do not produce them.

What is the alternative? To give the private sector free reign in forest preserves? Some governments have taken that approach, and some pharmaceuticals have taken the bait. But this business model has not worked out all its kinks, and the results are not promising. Neither the governments nor the pharmaceuticals have seen the revenue they expected.

So remember that this argument for forest and ecosystem value does not hold much water when viewed in the wider context of how the industry develops a new product. It simply costs too much to go through all the development, testing and certification to bother risking with a chemical that has been identified in the open literature.

And that is a great pity for how science works, but it is part of the bargain society makes for intellectual property. ...and that can of worms (intellectual property) can wait for another post.


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