'There is a conflict in gene patenting in India and abroad'

ASIS DUTTA, a senior biologist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is the first Indian scientist to have applied for a gene patent in the United States of America. Two years ago, he succeeded in isolating a gene which codes for an ideal protein for human nutrition from the plant Amaranthus, or Ramdana. Dutta claims that the significant patent will cover not only the isolation of the gene, but also the construction of an artificial genetic sequence which enables the transfering of the Amaranthus gene into several other crops. ANJANI KHANNA discussed with him the prospects that this achievement holds for Indian science

Published: Friday 31 March 1995

What do you hope to achieve by patenting the protein gene extracted from Amaranthus or Ramdana?
Cereals like rice and wheat are an important protein source. However, they are not nutritionally very efficient as they have very low concentrations of several essential amino acids, like tryptophan and lysine. Legumes like peas also have low concentrations of sulphur-containing amino acids. These amino acids are considered essential because the body cannot synthesise them by itself.

With the advent of recombinant dna technology, the protein content of these legumes and cereals can be enhanced, improving their nutritional quality. Genes can be obtained from any source. But I thought it to be more appropriate to isolate a seed protein gene, as this was unlikely to create problems when incorporated into cereals or legumes using genetic engineering techniques. To do this, I chose the Amaranthus plant, because its seeds contain reasonably high quantities of the essential amino acids. We isolated this gene and had our results published in the the prestigious us journal, The Proceedings of the National Academy Science in December 1992.

Seeing the commercial potential of this discovery, the department of biotechnology (dbt), which funded this research project, agreed to apply for a patent right. Using this gene in a gene transfer technique, scientists can now produce several valuable transgenic crops.

Was this was the first seed protein gene isolated, or have their been others?
Others have also been isolated, but they are not as good as this gene in terms of their amino acid concentration. A gene called the 2s protein gene has been isolated from brazilnuts. This has a high content of sulphur containing amino acids, but the concentrations of other essential amino acids are not particularly high.

Are any companies or researchers interested in the commercial exploitation of the gene you isolated?
A lot of people want to use our gene, which can be used in several crops. A Brazilian company and the International Rice Research Institute based in the Philippines want to collaborate with us.

Have you any plans to tie up with a company to exploit this gene?
Ultimately, it will happen. That is the reason why we -- the dbt, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and I -- have together applied for the patent. In any such a tie-up, the dbt will naturally be involved, but I will also be involved in whatsoever decisions that are taken regarding the use of the seed gene.

What further research are you planning to do with this gene?
Right now, our work is concentrated on trying to incorporate this gene into several other plants. We have chosen plants like rice, potato, peas and chickpeas at the moment, as the procedures to regenerate most of these crops using tissue culture techniques is quite well established in the scientific world. Efforts are being made to develop certain gene sequences known as promoters. These will induce the protein gene to produce proteins. Attempts to target the gene under study to the appropriate part of the plant dna are also being made. In fact, we are also trying to isolate other protein genes from Amaranthus which can be conveniently used as a backup.

What will be the scope and extent of the patent that you will be obtaining from the US?
The gene sequence is covered by the patent, and the crops that are being transformed will also be covered. The patent will be in the name of the inventor, the dbt, and Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Wasn't the selection of the high protein-containing Amaranthus varieties done informally by farmers? Do you think that Indian farmers, who have been cultivating Ramdana or Amaranthus for generations, have some rights over the royalties from scientists or companies which exploit the germplasm they have been conserving over the centuries?
This is a tricky question. I would prefer not to comment on this.

But don't you think these farmers and their communities have a right to the benefits that will accrue when these important genes are incorporated into other crop plants?
I sorry. I cannot comment on this at all.

I understand the Indian Patent Act, 1970, does not allow the patenting of life forms. But the process of genetic manipulation can be patented. Do you have plans to patent this process in India?
Yes, the patenting has already been done.

Do you think that there is a need to modify the Indian Patent Act?
Yes, there is a contradiction between what is allowed in India and abroad, and these contradictions need to be rationalised. In India, we only allow process patents and not product patents, as they do in other parts of the world.

Wouldn't this make access to germplasm a more difficult task even for other Indian scientists who might want to work on that plant?
I think it is better not to comment on this issue. If they at all want to use those transgenic seeds for any purpose, they will have to pay a heavy royalty.

For an Indian scientist or an Indian government department obtaining a patent abroad, wouldn't this lead to demands that India also allow patents on lifeforms? On the one hand, you revoke a patent in your own country, but you scientists patent your discoveries abroad. Isn't there a conflict on this ground?
I don't see any kind of conflict regarding this. You have to carefully analyse why at all the patent granted to Agracetus was revoked. But I think the dbt secretary can actually answer these questions better.

In India, only about 15 to 20 per cent of seed sales are in the formal sector, and farmers mostly sell seeds to one another informally. Would the patenting of this gene and its commercial exploitation at a later stage make life more difficult for small farmers?
I don't think so. This gene has been isolated from India. The interest of the country will be protected by all means although I am not very sure how it will be done. But if a company had intentions of marketing these transgenic seeds, the agreement with the company could ensure that the seeds are freely available in India, but sold at a higher price in other countries.

So what you are suggesting is that differential agreements be made for sale in India and outside...
That can be done. But certainly I want to do something in my country and my countrypeople should benefit more than the rest of the world.

What is the potential of genetic engineering in meeting India's food needs?
It certainly has a large potential -- of that I have no doubt. You can incorporate a particular characteristic of interest without disturbing the genetic makeup of the rest of the plant. In conventional breeding, this is not possible and it is indeed a great handicap. With the incorporation of a single gene, you can make a whole plant resistant to pest and insect attacks.

But surely that has drawbacks. Don't insects overcome this plant resistance very quickly?
Surely insects can develop resistance, but as in the case in traditional breeding, it is a continuous process and scientists have to keep on developing newer varieties, using various genetic engineering techniques.

There is a debate and a certain degree of fear in the West about genetic engineering. On the one hand, people are worried that the manipulation of genes could have serious environmental fallout; on the other, they are concerned about the ethical aspect of genetic manipulation. What is your opinion regarding these issues?
I don't believe that there are any such environmental risks involved, or even that of genetic manipulation.

But can't herbicide resistance, for example, be transfered from crop plants to weeds?
These possibilities exist. But you could perhaps check the spread of pollen from crops using pollen traps.

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