Bitter Remedies: The search for plants that heal generates international feuding

Friday, June 8, 2001

By MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS, The Wall Street Journal

HARARE, Zimbabwe - Seated under a cheetah-skin wall hanging, Handson Gwindi is explaining how his ancestors help him use the snake-bean tree to treat everything from ulcers to skin cancer.

An elephant foot serves as a stool for the ancestral spirits to sit on during the healing ceremony. Cowry shells and marula-tree seeds serve as the medium through which the spirits deliver their diagnoses. The remedies that follow, made from the snake-bean tree's serpentine seed pods or its yellowish root bark, come to Mr. Gwindi in dreams, courtesy of his ancestors.

That is the way traditional healers here have been practicing for generations. So, Mr. Gwindi wonders, what are Swiss scientists suddenly doing with a United States patent on his ancestors' remedies? "People are coming here to steal," he says.

A clash over the snake-bean tree has flipped the familiar intellectual-property battle in which poor countries flout Western patent rights to AIDS drugs. Zimbabwean healers say this time, it is the Westerners who have pirated age-old natural remedies.

While the Swiss dispute the allegation, they have definitely fumbled a delicate issue and left a trail of ill-will in Zimbabwe. Initial advanced testing of the snake-bean tree for potential commercialization has been disappointing, but interest in it as a remedy remains avid. And the snake-bean clash could foreshadow a wave of international conflicts over the intellectual-property rights of developing-country governments and of healers who provide traditional knowledge about indigenous plants.

With researchers from rich countries combing the Third World for new medicines and crops, disputes similar to the snake-bean blowup have already flared in such places as India, where the spice turmeric was at issue, and Latin America. The United Nations launched negotiations in Geneva last month to work out global rules for handling such cases.

Zimbabwe's snake-bean-tree controversy has its roots in the mid-1980s, when a graduate student at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland was studying how the tree's seed pods kill certain snails. Quite by chance, the student also noticed that the tree's root bark - collected in Tanzania, Malawi and Panama, not Zimbabwe - killed fungus in lab tests, says Andrew Marston, research director of the university's plant-chemistry institute.

A few years later, because of the rising incidence of thrush, a mouth-and-throat infection common in AIDS patients, the Swiss began searching for plants that could be used against the fungus. Kurt Hostettmann, the institute's head, remembered the snake-bean tree discovery and put his students to work figuring out what molecule in the bark kills fungus.

In their offices overlooking Mont Blanc, Messrs. Hostettmann and Marston see themselves as helping the developing world. They supervise doctoral students from Ivory Coast, Panama and Senegal, who sift through bark and leaves, looking for chemical compounds effective against microbes.

On a shelf facing a portrait of Albert Einstein, Mr. Marston keeps a collection of traditional remedies, including a Johnnie Walker bottle of twigs and bark that healers in the Dominican Republic swear by as an impotence cure, when mixed with whisky. Nearby is a tube of seed from Ghana marketed as a "quick-action" hemorrhoid remedy. "I don't know what's in them," Mr. Marston says.

But, thanks in part to the Zimbabweans, he now knows exactly what's in the bark of the snake-bean-tree root. In 1995, the Swiss signed an agreement with Zimbabwe's national university and botanical garden to get access to more than 5,000 species of plants used by that country's traditional healers, including the snake-bean tree. If subsequent research led to any patents being sought, the agreement stated, "a joint application" would be made by the Swiss and Zimbabweans.

Using material gathered under the pact, another Swiss graduate student soon isolated the fungus-killing molecule in snake-bean-root bark. Instead of publishing the findings immediately, Mr. Hostettmann in 1996 signed a contract with Phytera Inc., in which the Worcester, Mass., firm agreed to test and develop the compound for commercial use. The next year, Mr. Hostettmann and the student who isolated the molecule applied for the U.S. patent.

It was, after nearly two decades at the institute, the closest Mr. Hostettmann had come to finding a plant that might produce a useful commercial drug.

Mr. Marston says the Swiss team intended to put a botanist from Zimbabwe's botanical garden on the patent application to recognize his role in supplying the roots. But the Swiss team's American lawyers advised against it, on the theory that the botanist, Stephen Mavi, hadn't taken part in the laboratory research, Mr. Marston says.

So, shortly before submitting the patent application, Mr. Hostettmann and Phytera amended their contract to specify that half of any royalties due to the Swiss would go to the University of Zimbabwe and the botanical garden. Both sides agree that the Swiss advised Mr. Mavi and the then-chairman of the African university's pharmacy department, Farai Chinyanganya, in advance that no individual Zimbabwean would appear on the patent.

But Mr. Chinyanganya, now a pharmacist in England, says the Swiss assured him the patent would instead name the Zimbabwean university and botanical garden. It wasn't until the application was in the hands of the patent examiners that Mr. Chinyanganya learned that only Swiss names appear on the document, he says.

In July 1999, the United States granted the Swiss scientists Patent 5,929,124, which applies broadly to antimicrobial uses of snake-bean-tree compounds. Zimbabwean officials and traditional healers, however, didn't find out about it until last September, alerted by a Swiss environmental activist who saw a British news story in which Mr. Hostettmann boasted of the compound's commercial potential to treat thrush and athlete's foot.

Alarms went off, and accusations flew. The Daily News in Harare ran the headline, "Billions Lost as Local Herb is Patented Abroad." At a tense meeting between the two sides in February at the University of Zimbabwe, Pro Vice Chancellor Levi M. Nyagura angrily read aloud from the 1995 agreement between the universities, lingering on the provision promising joint-patent applications, according to people who were there.

The Swiss argue that their discovery had little to do with traditional Zimbabwean practices and that they conducted sophisticated research that Zimbabwean scientists aren't equipped to do. "I don't want to pretend nobody has used it in any antifungal activity in traditional medicine, but we don't have any documented evidence" of such uses, says Mr. Marston.

Zimbabwe's estimated 55,000 traditional healers don't document their dreams. They say spirits have long directed them to use snake-bean bark to treat foot rot, leprosy, thrush and even severe body odor. "I was born using this," says healer Wimbiru Mhofu.

Mr. Mhofu's ramshackle stand in Harare's Mupedzanhamo market is overloaded with animal horns, bones and feathers. He mixes the ashes of snake-bean bark with cooking oil or hair tonic to treat thrush for roughly 150 Zimbabwe dollars, or about $2.70 at the bank exchange rate.

The Zimbabwean healers want a share of any snake-bean profits, but they also want recognition. The Swiss research "came out of our traditional knowledge," says Peter Sibanda, a healer and spokesman for the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association. "A practitioner should have been shown on the patent."

Exacerbating the rancor and confusion is a murky legal situation. Zimbabwean intellectual-property law, like that of many developing countries, is vague on the subject of local plants and traditional medicinal recipes. Alarmed by the snake-bean-tree case, the government hopes to enact a law soon that would strengthen indigenous intellectual-property rights.

International law offers conflicting intellectual-property rules. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, which carries no enforcement mechanism, favors the Third World. It says that countries producing genetic resources and traditional knowledge upon which research is based ought to share in any payoff from the research.

Leaning the other way, the World Trade Organization protects the property rights of whoever seeks a patent first - often big companies - and makes no mention of sharing benefits with provider countries. Zimbabwe and Switzerland have signed both agreements.

The multicountry negotiations that just got under way in Geneva aim to resolve this contradiction, but the talks probably will take years. In the meantime, clashes such as the snake-bean-tree dispute are being addressed haphazardly around the world.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1997 revoked a patent it had earlier granted to the University of Mississippi Medical Center for the use of turmeric in treating surgical and other wounds. Indian researchers had sought the revocation, arguing that this use wasn't original. Every Indian grandmother knows turmeric, a spice and food-coloring agent, helps heal wounds, the researchers pointed out. Natural-remedy stores and Web sites sell turmeric as a treatment for a variety of ailments.

In Mexico's Chiapas state, a United States government-funded research project has been stalled for two years by local healers who argue that it is exploitative for outsiders to use traditional knowledge as a guide for finding and patenting medically useful plants. The National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and United States Department of Agriculture, which had agreed to contribute a total of $2.7 million to the project, have barred plant collecting until the American researchers reach a compromise with the Mexicans.

In the snake-bean fight, the Swiss have now agreed to explore amending the patent registration to include the University of Zimbabwe and botanical garden. And the university and garden have agreed to negotiate some compensation for the healers. But ill will persists. "We don't trust them anymore," Mr. Gwindi, the healer, says of the Swiss. All talk of further plant transfers has been abandoned for now.

The uproar has left the Swiss seething, too. In the institute's basement, in a chamber cooled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, sits a cardboard box with a couple of dozen thimble-size glass vials that together contain less than an ounce of orange powder and crystals - the remaining supply of a purified compound of snake-bean-root bark. "But we're not doing anything with it because otherwise they'll accuse us of going behind their backs again," says Mr. Marston. The Swiss say they have spent about $300,000 so far on their research.

Further frustrating Mr. Marston and his colleagues was word from Phytera earlier this year that, while the snake-bean compound may kill fungus under some laboratory conditions, the company's tests showed it didn't work - and was, in fact, toxic - in mammalian cells and live mice.

Phytera's results are far from definitive. The company didn't test the compound for its ability to kill other microbes, and both Swiss and Zimbabwean scientists continue to believe the snake-bean compound could work as a topical antifungal cream, an antiviral agent, or perhaps a malaria remedy.

But finding out would require more advanced research, and that isn't happening in Lausanne.

Other indigenous healing plants.......

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