The cell snatchers

Wednesday 31 January 1996

And now it is the turn for human cells to be patented on the sly by scientific vampires', as shows the bizarre case of a Hagahai tribal male

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)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 researchers.

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 malaria research 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.

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