The French Patent an African Indigenous Plant (anti-cancerous)*
Research by Edward Hammond that reveals patent claims by three French universities over a promising new anti-cancer compound in a plant called “sabara” that is found from Senegal to Sudan. It has long been used by the Dogon people of Mali who are known for their well-developed traditional medicines system.
The French researchers freely concede that Dogon traditional knowledge led them to the drug, but their patent applications list French inventors and are owned by French institutions. The Universite Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, one of the applicants, is advertising rights to the candidate drug, seeking to attract private sector bidders.
This case is one of many that reaffirms again the urgent need for countries with biodiversity and traditional knowledge of its uses, especially developing countries, to put in place effective laws to prevent misappropriation.
By Edward Hammond
The Dogon people of Mali are widely known for their unique culture, including a well-developed system of traditional medicine. Attracted by the strength of Dogon traditional knowledge, since at least 2006, a group of French bio-prospectors from Auvergne has focused a drug discovery effort on Dogon medicinal plants.
The bio-prospectors were recently successful, finding a promising new anti-cancer compound in a plant used in traditional medicine not only by the Dogon, but by other peoples across the Sahel and nearby regions. Three French universities have together filed patent claims, but there’s no evidence that Africa will benefit from this “French discovery”.
The researchers freely concede that Dogon traditional knowledge led them to the drug, but their patent applications list French inventors and are owned by French institutions. The Universite Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, one of the applicants, is advertising rights to the candidate drug, seeking to attract private sector bidders.
The French researchers, who also include staff from Clermont University and the Superior National School of Chemistry (Ecole Nationale Sup้rieure de Chimie), also in Clermont-Ferrand, are affiliated with the “Analgesic Institute”, a public-private partnership including pharmaceutical companies and the French government.
As part of their work under the banner of the Analgesic Institute, the researchers were initially seeking new pain killers in Malian medicinal plants. After collecting samples in a Dogon town,however, the bioprospectors realized that they had a potential cancer drug, which they have named Guieranon B.
The source of the compound is Guiera senegalensis, a widely distributed shrub found from Senegal to Sudan. Guiera senegalensis has a variety of common names given by peoples that live across its range, many of whom also use it in their traditional medicine. The shrub’s name in the Hausa language, sabara, is the most frequently used name for the plant in English.(In French it is called guiera du Senegal.)
In 2011, before filing for patent, Pierre Chalard, one of the “inventors” of Guieranon B, was unequivocal in crediting traditional knowledge with leading the group to sabara. Based at Universite Blaise Pascal, Chalard sought to drum up interest in his group’s research, writing:
The perfect knowledge of the cultural milieu of West African traditional medicineof our Malian partners led us to select a plant, Guiera du Senegal (Guiera senegalensis), prescribed by Malian practitioners for the treatment of visceral pain since the dawn of time, in order to study its chemical composition
Chalard has also specified the origin of the sabara samples used, writing, “the plant material was collected at S้gu้, a village of the Dogon located northeast of Bamako…”
How the French research group moved from painkillers to cancer drugs is not publicly documented, although a 2011 article by Chalard mentions screening sabara extracts for anticancer activity, in addition to the analgesic interest.
The bio-prospectors were perhaps propelled by a 2006 article by French, Belgian, and Burkinabe researchers identifying another sabara extract, Guieranon A, as having anti-cancer potential. Those and other researchers that have subsequently studied Guieranon A, however, do not appear to have filed any patent claims.
Sabara is also related to the bushwillow (Combretum) family, the source of combrestatin, another promising anticancer drug and that, taken together with sabara’s widespread traditional medicinal use, is another suggestion of sabara’s potential anticancer activity.
A reading of the patent claims of Blaise Pascal and Clermont Universities would Suggest that use of sabara extracts to treat cancer is a novel idea, but that is not the case according to Nigerian (and Malaysian) researchers, who report that sabara is a well-known cancer treatment in Nigeria.
According to the researchers, knowledge of sabara’s anti-cancer potential stems from its use for that purpose by Hausa and Kanuri peoples in the country’s north, where sabara is traditionally used to treat breast cancer, one of the same uses of Guieranon B claimed as a French “invention” in the patent applications:
[Sabara] is widely used by the Hausa and Kanuri tribes in the Northern-Eastern parts of Nigeria… the recommended cultural practices for treatment of breast cancer and associated breast inflammatory lesions(e.g. mastitis) include regular drinking and taking bath with fresh water decoction of G. senegalensis leaves…poultices of fresh leaves are made in some instances and rubbed all over the affected breast.
And that is only one of several reports linking sabara to cancer treatment in African traditional medicine. In 1994, Sudanese researchers reported that sabara leaves and bark were used to treat tumors in that country’s White Nile Province. And Plants Used Against Cancer (by Jonathan Hartwell), a highly regarded 1982 compilation of 1960s and 70s papers written by US National Institutes of Health researchers, states that Guiera has a long history of use in treatments against cancer.
The French universities’patent applications claim Guieranon B as matter, other compounds that are similar to Guieranon B, pharmaceuticals that include those compounds, use to treat cancer in general and, more specifically, use of Guieranon B to treat breast, colon, and prostate cancers. As the first claim of the patent application is not specifically linked to cancer therapy, future patent applications might build on the first by claiming other uses of Guieranon B (e.g. as ananalgesic).
A patent has been granted in France (FR2980196) and is pending in the remainder of Europe. To date, patent applications have also been filed in the United States, South Korea, and China. The search report of the international patent application (WO2013037964) is positive with respect to the patent’s claims, apparently because the molecule Guieranon B has not been specifically described before in Western scientific literature.
The “inventors” of Guieranon B have, in the past, co-authored articles with Malian researchers, including staff from the country’s Traditional Medicine Department (D้partement M้decine Traditionnelle) in Bamako. Pierre Chalard, the lead Inventor in the patent applications, however, did not respond to questions regarding informed consent and benefit sharing arrangements, and no references to any relevant benefit sharing arrangement could otherwise be found.
Guieranon B does not appear to merit the description of being a French invention. More accurately, it might be said that, using African traditional medicine and Malian genetic resources, the French researchers refined anti-cancer knowledge about sabara into the terms of modern Western chemistry. While this research will prove useful if Guieranon B pans out as a cancer drug, the use of sabara extracts to treat cancer is not a French invention and affording the French institutions exclusive rights over the compound is unjustifiable. Instead, use of sabara extracts to treat cancer is something that belongs to the African peoples that have used the plant in their traditional medicine for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.
For the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which entered into force in October 2014, this case draws particular attention to the Protocol’s Article 8(a),which references the need for national access and benefit sharing laws to address cases of changes of researchers’ intent.
The project that resulted in patent claims on Guieranon B did not begin as cancer research. At the time samples were collected in Mali, the researchers’ intent was to develop drugs to treat pain. The Universite Blaise Pascal has not responded to requests for further information to shed light on this question, but it seems quite possible that the Dogon that provided samples were not fully aware of the scope of ways in which the French Universities would use the samples.
More generally, like other misappropriation cases before it, this signals the need for national laws and bio-prospecting contracts to establish and enforce the bio-prospector’s obligations independent of the stated intent of the research, due to ever-present possibility of unexpected findings or changes in intent. Indeed, if care is not taken to either apply benefit sharing to any use of collected materials and knowledge, or (preferably) to specifically itemize and restrict the purposes for which access is allowed, a shift in intent of research – undertaken for honest or less honorable reasons – could be a way for a bio-prospector to evade benefit sharing obligations.