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Case Study: Rosy Periwinkle (Madagascar)

In 1954 technicians from the American firm Eli Lilly extracted two alkaloids, Vinblastine and Vincristine, from the Rosy Periwinkle, both of which were believed to have cancer fighting properties. Eli Lilly was granted a patent for isolating these alkaloids.

Eli Lilly first became interested in the Rosy Periwinkle because of its' traditional use as an anti-diabetic. Only after subsequent testing was it found to have potential anti-cancerous properties as well. In her article, Natural Products and the Commercialization of Traditional Knowledge, Sarah Laird asserts, "If a company develops an anti cancer agent from a plant used traditionally as an anti-diabetic, as with the Rosy Periwinkle, the link with traditional knowledge becomes more tenuous." (1994:154) During the course of the patent, Eli Lilly made millions of dollars from drugs derived from the Rosy Periwinkle alkaloids. The people of Madagascar, however, never received any compensation for the use of their traditional knowledge.

The Madagascar Periwinkle, prompted the U.S National Cancer Institute (NCI) to initiate a program for the systematic testing of plants for anticancer activity. Between 1960 and 1982 The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the NCI collaborated in the collection and testing of approximately 35,000 plant samples collected mainly from temperate regions in some sixty countries. (1994:85)

While many argue that biopiracy is a thing of the past, others remain skeptical. While new laws concerning benefit sharing have been instituted, often only an extremely small percentage of a company's profits are given to the nation from which the resource is derived. Washington University law professor Charles R. McManis maintains, "it remains to be seen whether there will actually be a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the utilization of genetic resources." (http://ls.wustl.edu/WULQ/76-1/761-18.html)

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This page last updated on: Friday, 20-Oct-2006 13:15:20 EDT