Effort Seeks to Keep Westerners from Poaching Folk Remedies
by Nancy Dennis
The Indian government has embarked upon an ambitious four-year, $2 million project called the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library. The project employs an interdisciplinary team of about 150 Traditional Medicine experts (Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, and Yoga), patent examiners, Information Technology experts, scientists, and technicians.1 The project aims to protect India’s traditional remedies from expropriation in the form of patents by various commercial interests, e.g., multinational drug companies. The process of patenting the uses of plants gained from traditional knowledge is frequently referred to as bio-piracy.
The need for such a database became apparent in 1995 when two Indian-born scientists in Mississippi were granted a US patent on the use of turmeric (Curcuma longa L., Zingiberaceae), a common spice in India and other areas of Asia, to heal wounds. After protests from the Indian government, which cited ancient Sanskrit texts describing the use of turmeric for this purpose, the patent was revoked.
Although Indian officials can point to only a few such intellectual-property cases, they predict that the threat will inevitably grow as drug companies seek to cut soaring research-and-development costs by finding new products among natural remedies that have been used for millennia in developing countries such as India and China.
The new database project also reflects a nationalistic pride in India’s ancient scientific heritage and the continuing use in modern times of remedies that are often viewed with skepticism in the West. Indian officials say the data-collection effort will promote the commercialization of traditional Indian remedies, help validate their scientific underpinnings, and encourage collaboration between Indian and foreign pharmaceutical companies. However, according to an article in the Washington Post, the pharmaceutical industry is opposing India’s efforts to amend the World Trade Organization rules to protect ancient remedies.2
The database will eventually contain over 100,000 traditional remedies from the collective wisdom of the ancient healing arts known as ayurveda, unani, and siddha. The most popular of these is ayurveda, which remains the dominant form of treatment in many parts of rural India despite the growing influence of Western medicine.
Since 2001 the project team has been poring over ancient texts in Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian, and Arabic in search of traditional formulas to create the database. The specialists enter the formulas in alphanumeric code, which are then translated automatically into English, Japanese, French, German, and Spanish. Sometime this year, the complete library will be made available to foreign patent offices on a secure Web site. Indian officials hope the patent offices will use the database in evaluating whether to grant patents on natural remedies.
1. Traditional Knowledge Digital Library Web site. Available at: http://188.8.131.52/tkdl/langdefault/common/Abouttkdl.asp?GL=. Accessed March 9, 2006.
2. Lancaster J. India Digitizes Age-Old Wisdom. Washington Post. January 8, 2006:A22.