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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Who Owns Life?

Air Date: Week of

Bob Carty of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports on the ethical issues surrounding the extraction of genes from indigenous peoples and attempts to patent and sell the genetic material. Native activists say the practice is exploitative, while the US government and industry say this kind of genetic prospecting could benefit all people by helping to find a cure for diseases such as cancer and AIDS.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As humans, we are all united by a common genetic heritage. But each of us has our own unique variation of genes which determines everything from our hair color to our resistance to diseases. These small differences are key clues in the search for cures for a whole range of diseases, from cancers to AIDS. This quest has led researchers to all corners of the Earth to gather genetic samples from isolated peoples. But it's also led to ethical dilemmas. Recently, for instance, US Government scientists took blood samples from remote Panamanian Indians, and, without their knowledge, brought the cells back to the US to copy them, patent them, and put them up for sale. Biotechnology researchers say with proper safeguards, this kind of genetic prospecting can be acceptable. But some native groups have called it biological piracy. Bob Carty of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has our report.

(Laboratory floor sounds, described below)

CARTY: In a large basement room in Rockville, Maryland, white vapor hisses from hoses as they charge 8 steel tanks with liquid nitrogen. Inside the tanks, at 211 degrees below zero, are tiny glass vials, one and a half million of them. Each vial contains a little piece of life: of bacteria, viruses, fungi, plants, animals, and human beings. This is the American Type Culture Collection, or ATCC. The ATCC is a complex of 3 buildings with heavy security doors. Inside, the atmosphere is a curious mix between a library and a distribution warehouse. The ATCC does a bit of both. In part it's a cell library, where scientists deposit genetic material as a requirement of the patent process. The ATCC also sells cloned samples of that material to other researchers. The ATCC even has a catalogue on computer disk. That's how a Canadian researcher first came across evidence of genetic prospecting. The researcher was Pat Mooney, the director of a biodiversity research organization called The Rural Advancement Foundation International. One day last summer, Pat Mooney was browsing through the ATCC catalogue on his home computer in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was hoping to find something about seeds in Asia, but he stumbled on something else.

(Computer keyboard action)

MOONEY: I was really trying to track something down related to India, so I typed in "India" and was trying to do a word search through it that way. And suddenly on my screen, one of the options that popped up was Guaymi Indian Woman from Panama. Which was not what I was looking for. As I read through it, I could see that they were saying that they had the human cell line and that for the low, low sum of $127 I could have my own Guaymi Indian Woman from Panama in my own little test tube. I didn't know what to say; I was stunned. To me it was just an incredible though that you could do something like that.

CARTY: At the time, Pat Mooney didn't know what to do with that odd piece of information. But a couple of weeks later, he was looking at a different computerized database, one that lists applications for patents in Europe. On a whim, he typed in the word "Guaymi."

(Computer keyboard being typed)

MOONEY: And suddenly there she was on the screen. The patent application. The title of the patent was Guaymi Indians from Panama. that was part of the actual title of the claim. And the assignee - and to me the most astonishing aspect of all of this was that the assignee for this patent, the one who was applying for the patent, was the Secretary of the Department of Commerce of the United States Government. And how is it that someone who is the head of a major government department of the United States, on behalf of the United States, is claiming the human cell line of not just an indigenous person but the citizen of a foreign country?

CARTY: The foreign country was Panama, where in the western rainforests 124,000 Guaymi native people live. It all goes back to the 1980s, when the genetic revolution was taking off. Scientists became interested in aboriginal people because, as isolated populations, they might have a few unique genes or cells. And such cells or genes could make drugs that could be worth billions. Researchers had already discovered something special about the Guaymi. Many of them carried a kind of retro-virus which, at the time, was thought to be associated with the viruses that cause leukemia and AIDS. In 1990 some American doctors went to the jungles of western Panama. They took blood samples, including one from a 26-year-old Guaymi mother of 2. The researchers say they do not know her name. Back in the United States, they took one of the woman's cells and cloned it, duplicated it hundreds of times. That's called a cell line, and the US Department of Commerce put a patent claim on it. One of the researchers was Dr. Jonathan Kaplan from the US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

KAPLAN: When you work for the Government, the Government encourages people who develop things like that to apply for a patent. If there is money to be made, the vast majority of it comes right back to the Government. There was really no thinking about individual motives or profits.

CARTY: Dr. Kaplan's motives may not have been financial, but the US Government clearly considered the Guaymi cells of potential value: a possible windfall for the Government itself, or something it could sell to private biotech companies. Meanwhile, Pat Mooney, the Winnipeg researcher, had established contact with leaders of the Guaymi people. They were shocked when he told them they were being used as genetic raw material. From Panama City, I reached Jose Acosta, a Guaymi and a consultant to the Guaymi National Congress.

ACOSTA: (Speaking in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: When the Spanish arrived in 1492, they took away our gold. When the countries of Latin America became independent, they stole our land. Today, the same thing is happening. They want to take our cells. The exploitation is still going on.

CARTY: What most outraged the Guaymi was that they were never consulted. The researchers claim that they did tell the Guaymi, in general, that they were the subject of medical studies. But there is an obvious pitfall here. Many Guaymi are illiterate. Many don't even speak Spanish. And in their language, there's no word for "genetics." Dr. Jonathan Kaplan concedes that the Guaymi were not given the full picture.

KAPLAN: I think most people wouldn't understand all the details of all the laboratory work that was being done. So in terms of specifically notifying the Guaymi that a patent application was being put forth, I don't believe that was done. But again, mainly because I don't think anyone felt it was really necessary. No one was trying to dishonor them or to take anything from them in any way.

CARTY: But the Guaymi say something was taken from them. Whether well-intentioned or not, they call it theft. They say that if their bodies contain something that can benefit humanity, they are not against sharing it. But they want to have control over the disposition of their genes. And they resent scientists who are willing to spend so much money to preserve the Guaymi and their genetic history in a test tube, while there are so few resources to help the Guaymi survive as a people. Guaymi spokesperson Jose Acosta.

ACOSTA: (Speaking in Spanish)
TRANSLATOR: We are not opposed to sharing with humanity. We oppose being exploited where our poverty is not resolved. We have looked into this biotechnology work. To process a sample, the cost per person is $2,300, while the rural [word?] salary of a Guaymi is less than $80 a year.

CARTY: The Guaymi sent letters to the US Government demanding the patent application be dropped. With the help of Pat Mooney's organization, they took the issue to the United Nations. Then, last November, the US Government withdrew its patent application. Officials contend it was not because of the protests. They say there was just not enough commercial interest in the cell line to continue the patent process. That may be true. But it suggests that if the Guaymi woman had something more valuable in her cells, the US Government would still be trying to slap a patent on them. The US Government still claims ownership of the cell line. It won't be returned to Panama, as the Guaymi have requested. It's still for sale at the American Type Culture Collection.

(Tanks being charged with liquid nitrogen)

CARTY: Human material is one of the fastest-growing collections at the ATCC. And this is just one of hundreds of cell libraries around the world. Many are private and restricted. Pat Mooney contends that private biotech companies are engaged in a gold rush for genes that researchers have yet to uncover.

MOONEY: What we've seen in Panama was the beginning of this. Just the tip of the iceberg. There's a collection of human cell lines going down along the Nile River as we speak. There's collecting going on in Colombia; there's collecting going on in the South Pacific; in Italy. All around the world. We've discovered 2 more examples of patent claims by the US Government again, against the lives, the human cell lines of people in Papua, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. This is bio-piracy.

CARTY: And it's not just an issue for the Third World. A Swedish pharmaceutical company recently secured a patent on a gene from the people of an isolated village in Italy. The company may soon be marketing drugs from the gene to treat heart disease. Meanwhile, native groups in Canada and Australia have joined those in Latin America in calling for a halt to gene prospecting. For the biotechnology companies, that's an alarming prospect. Charles Ludlum is Vice President of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington lobby. Ludlum agrees that gene research should be conducted with prior, informed consent. But he argues that patenting other people's genes and cells is necessary to compensate the biotech industry for its costly investments. He doesn't believe genetic prospecting is unethical.

LUDLUM: I don't think there is any ethical question involved with trying to create medicines that help human beings to avoid suffering and to avoid death. I think we need to go wherever medical knowledge can be found; and if we find that there is an aboriginal group in one country that has a special propensity to have a disease, or a special immunity to a disease, then I hope that they would be willing to share that with the rest of the world so that all of us can benefit.

CARTY: But biotechnology critics don't trust the industry. Andrew Kimbrell is the author of The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life. He argues that to control and regulate gene research and patenting, we need new international treaties. Such treaties might guarantee indigenous groups a share in the commercial returns from their genes. Kimbrell maintains that genes should not be private property, but rather a public heritage for all humanity.

KIMBRELL: The genes of our bodies, the genes of the animals and plants of the world, do not belong to a few major multinational corporations. They're something we all should share in. I think what we are seeing, increasingly around the world, is an enclosure of the genetic commons; and we're in an extraordinary situation where I think in a very short time, we're going to see all of the 100,000 or more human genes owned by a few companies.

(Cell vials being scattered)

CARTY: At the ATCC cell library in Rockville, Maryland, a worker is counting out tiny glass vials, packaging them up for sale: little pieces of the living world. And ever more frequently, little pieces of ourselves. There are almost no rules to govern this new commerce in the little parts of us. Governments and the international community are just starting to debate the issue. Back in Winnipeg, Pat Mooney insists there is a fundamental, or if you want a philosophical, question our society has yet to grapple with.

MOONEY: This is a new world. Patents were meant for sewing machines; now they're being applied to Guaymi people in Panama. We have a new kind of an industry out there. We no longer have a food industry or a pharmaceutical industry or a chemicals industry per se; we really have a life industry. And the thought that someone could have exclusive monopoly control for 17 years over the products, the processes, and in fact even the formula of life, is a scary thought. The fundamental question is who owns life?

CARTY: For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty.



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