The cell snatchers
Wednesday 31 January 1996
ON MARCH 14,1995, an indigenous man
of the Hagahai people (a tribe dwelling
in the highlands of Papua New
Guinea) ... ceased to own his genetic
material." This sensational statement
has been made by Pat Roy Mooney,
executive director of Rural
Advancement Foundation International
(RAFI), a Canada-based plant genetics
and indigenous peoples' rights group.
He and his colleagues are now hurling
fiery missiles at the us government, who
they claim, have patented human genetic material on the sly.
The institute which has reportedly
initiated this alleged heinous crime is
the Papua New Guinea Institute of
Medical Research (IMR), working in collaboration with the us National
Institutes of Health (NIH). These
researchers have patented a virus infected cell-line of a 20-year old Hagahai
man. Tracking down the issue, RAFI
sounded its battle cry against the 'scientific vampires' through the Internet.
"Indigenous person from Papua New
Guinea claimed in US government
patent", screamed its electronic media.
"Once you allow patenting of any life
form, you pretty much end up patenting
all life forms," decreed Mooney.
The scientists, of course, paint a very
different picture of the entire issue.
"There is a certain hysterical quality to
all of this which smacks of a
Frankenstein -like fear of molecular
biology," complained Carol Jenkins, an
IMR staffer. According to her, the IMR
team working with the NIH virologist
Carleton Gadjusek's group discovered
that the Hagahai were infected with a
variant of the human T Cell leukemia
virus (HTLV-1). The virus usually produces a severe form of leukemia, but the
Hagahai variant, previously unknown,
is benign. That is what interested
Then, following the NIH-guidelines,
the researchers applied for a patent on
an HTLV-infected cell-line. Their aim,
clarified an IMR spokeman, was to spell
out the commercial rights for private
companies that might want to use the
cell-line to develop diagnostic tests for
the HTLV. And most importantly, they
say that the idea of the patent was first
discussed with the Hagahai people, who
reportedly had a clear understanding of
the concept of ownership and the rest
was done with their approval. The
researchers also agreed to give the
Hagahai half the patent royalties.
The scientists have now found many
sympathisers. The Western media especially, is up in arms on behalf of the
researchers, dismissing RAH as a "small
Canadian group" which can at best
boast of some nuisance value. Science,
the prestigous US-based journal, vigorously rooted for the IMR team pointing
out that they were the most "unlikely"
target for such distrust. It quoted
renowned scholars like Jonathan
Friedlander, former director
of Pacific anthropology at
the National Science
Foundation, who con
firmed that the IMR staffers have done a great
deal for the wellbeing of the Hagahai people.
Among the various welfare schemes,
they have initiated
and are spearheading health education efforts. The case
was further strengthened by a comment
issued by Henry Greely, a law professor
at Stanford University, USA, who is
actively involved with the Human
Genome Diversity Project - an international scientific initiative to collect
and analyse genes from human species.
He asserted that "the patent doesn't
patent a person... And the idea that the
US government owns this person or his
genetic material, is absolute rubbish".
Even The Economist, the premier
British news magazine, took potshots at
the RAFI activists. In a news report titled
"Patent blather", it took pains to establish that the NIH had taken every step in
this research with the consent of the
Hagahais. Responding to this, Pat
Mooney has come up with a scathing
retort in the form of a letter to the editor. In this cryptic but biting missive, he
refuses to accept the defence line adopted by the NIH. He points out that in the
recently concluded United Nations
Biodiversity Convention at Jakarta, the
government of Papua New Guinea has
strongly condemned the NIH patent,
urging the US authorities to provide
proof of prior-informed consent.
But North American officials steadfastly refused to comment despite con-
siderable pressure from several other
quarters. RAFI itself has sued the US government under its Freedom of Information Act. Although several legal
deadlines have come and gone by, no
information has been forthcoming.