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Who owns indigenous peoples' DNA?

Aboriginal leaders have long struggled to control native lands. Now some have begun to worry that they may have to fight for control of native genes.

In August 1993, Pat Mooney, the president of Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a nonprofit organization concerned with Third World agriculture, discovered that the U.S. government was trying to patent a cell line derived from a 26-year-old Guaymi woman. The Guaymi people are native to western Panama. The cell line, a type of culture that can be maintained indefinitely, came from a blood sample obtained by a researcher from the U.S. National Institutes of Health in 1990. The application claimed that the cell line might prove useful for the treatment of human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV), which is associated with a form of leukemia and a degenerative nerve disease.

RAFI notified Isidro Acosta, president of the Guaymi General Congress, who demanded that the United States withdraw its claim and repatriate the cell line. Acosta also appealed to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and to an intergovernmental meeting on the Rio Biodiversity Convention. But GATT does not forbid the patenting of human material, and Acosta's case before the Biodiversity Convention fared no better. The convention does provide for sovereign rights over genetic resources, but the meeting did not rule on whether or not the Guaymi cell line came within its jurisdiction. As a growing number of nongovernmental organizations voiced their disapproval, however, the United States dropped its patent claim in November 1993.

The story might have ended there had not a European researcher uncovered two similar claims in January 1994. Miges Baumann, an official at Swissaid, a Swiss nongovernmental organization that supports rural initiatives in developing countries, discovered that the U.S. government had filed applications on a cell line derived from the Hagahai people of Papua, New Guinea, and another from the Solomon Islanders. These lines might also prove useful for treating HTLV. Baumann's discovery came as a shock to the governments concerned but, despite their protests, the United States has refused to withdraw the applications. In a letter dated March 3, 1994, Ron Brown, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, explained the U.S. position to a Solomon Islands official. "Under our laws, as well as those of many other countries," Brown wrote, "subject matter relating to human cells is patentable and there is no provision for considerations relating to the source of the cells that may be the subject of a patent application."

Patenting indigenous peoples' genes invites an obvious comparison with the patenting of the developing world's other biological resources, and native leaders have tended to take a dim view of the entire trend. "I never imagined people would patent plants and animals. It's fundamentally immoral, contrary to the Guaymi view of nature," said Acosta, who considers the patenting of human material a violation of "our deepest sense of morality."

But the rapid growth of biotechnology is driving a boom in human patents that may prove difficult to resist. The patenters are looking for genes that could be used to produce substances with commercial potential, usually for treating a disease. To patent a "product of nature," patent laws generally require some degree of human alteration. But in the United States, the simple act of isolating a DNA sequence removes it from nature, as far as the law is concerned.

The accessibility of the patent has fueled a growing commercial interest in the field. Companies that prospect in the human genome use a highly automated process called sequencing to decode bits of DNA from large numbers of samples. One company, Human Genome Sciences of Rockville, Maryland, is reported to have sequenced over 200,000 chunks of DNA thus far. Patent claims may follow if the sequences obtained look novel--and in some cases, even if they don't. In one of the more spectacular instances of "driftnet patenting," as critics call the practice, Incyte Pharmaceuticals of Palo Alto, California, filed claims on 40,000 sequences.

Observers say it's a good bet that other applications on indigenous DNA have already been filed. "I'm not aware of any others," says Hope Shand, RAFI's research director, "but it would surprise me if there weren't any more of them."
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Author:Bright, Chris
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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