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What is Bioprospecting?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2016
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The earth is rich in biological material that may not be fully understood. It’s often the case that local areas, especially remote ones, use biological cures for disease that aren’t lab produced and haven’t yet been packaged and patented by some company. Great potential exists in these traditional medicines from small countries, and this has led to increased interest, especially by advanced countries, in finding potential beneficial biological substances, further developing them, and patenting them. This search is often called bioprospecting, but it may also be termed biopiracy by those who disapprove of the occasionally exploitive methods used by large companies desirous of being the first ones to patent a newly discovered biological “cure,” which has sometimes been called the scientific equivalent of the gold rush.

It’s undeniable that extraordinary benefit may derive from bioprospecting. Most people in a developed country don’t have the time to research millions of alternative cures for illnesses that may exist in faraway places. Research companies, especially pharmaceutical companies, consider this time a worthy investment. Through bioprospecting, things like the Rosy Periwinkle from Madagascar have been found, which contains chemicals that have been used in certain forms of chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma.

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Many other substances, sometimes suggested by local claims about their uses, can be investigated in bioprospecting. There are usually many more investigations than there are true finds of efficacious agents, and inherent problems may exist in the bioprospecting process. High failure rate and the process for finding new agents typically are not enough to discourage large companies who want to find the next “cure.” Unfortunately the goal in bioprospecting is not always purely altruistic.

Obviously most large companies that look for the “new drug,” which could be derived from a biological substance, are interested in helping other humans. Yet the comparison of bioprospecting to a gold rush is often accurate. The ability to patent a chemical found in biological matter, or a cultivar of a particular species, can mean fantastic things if a substance is found to be helpful. Holding the patent on it may translate to a huge financial reward, in the ballpark of billions of dollars.

Therein lies the problem. Most substances investigated in bioprospecting are from smaller, remote or less developed countries that do not have the resources to do their own patenting, or extensive scientific research. If the country cannot prove through literature that they have already been using a substance for the exact same purpose, as the one intended by a pharmaceutical company, that company may be able to patent chemicals contained within biological matter (usually plants). This might eliminate the rights of the country to produce their own versions of whatever medicines are derived and they would lose the profits from it.

In the best scenario, pharmaceutical companies make financial arrangements with countries that would involve them in some profit sharing. These arrangements aren’t always equal or fair, hence the term biopiracy. On an international scale, the Convention of Biological Diversity is continuing to try to address this, and to build reasonable partnerships between searchers for the next great bio-based chemical, and the countries, which may harbor them. An equally important question to the organization is whether anyone can truly own a biological substance, a living thing, and how international patent or ownership laws can be interpreted in light of this question. Lastly, concern must exist that any search or subsequent large-scale production of a particular biological agent does not interfere with biodiversity of an area in other respects.

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