The Berry and the Parasite

 

The Berry and the Parasite

 

                                 A 30-year struggle to control

                                 schistosomiasis has revealed

                                much about patents and profits

 

                     In 1964 Aklilu Lemma of Addis Ababa University traveled

                     to Adwa, Ethiopia, to study schistosomiasis. This

                     debilitating disease of the liver or bladder affects some 300

                     million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The

                     Schistosoma parasite multiplies within snails that infest rivers

                     and ponds; when humans use the water, the organism enters

                     their skin. At one brook, Lemma saw women washing

                     clothes with the sudsy extract from the local endod berry.

                     Downstream, the snails were dead.

 

                     Back in Addis Ababa, Lemma, who has a Ph.D. from

                     Johns Hopkins University, instituted a program to study

                     whether the endod berry could be safely used in controlling

                     Schistosoma-bearing snails. Although endod also kills

                     mosquito larvae and fish, he found that it is harmless to rats;

                     in humans, it is an emetic. "People grow it around their

                     houses," Lemma reports. "They have tested it for safety and

                     adopted it as a useful plant."

 

                     The subsequent saga of the berry attests to the difficulties

                     that developing countries experience in benefiting from their

                     own biodiversity. Each observer attributes endod's travails

                     to a different stumbling block, but one moral seems to be

                     clear: it takes a determined, politically savvy proponent to

                     ensure that the promise of a product is realized for its own

                     local community.

 

                     Lemma's results attracted scientists from the National

                     Research Development Corporation in London, who

                     offered to collaborate. "They took sackfuls of berries,"

                     Lemma relates, and he says he heard no more from them.

                     Returning to Adwa, he and his colleagues started a test to

                     see if endod could halt schistosomiasis. If the disease was

                     not transmitted for five years, they theorized, children

                     between one to six years of age should be free from it.

 

                     In 1970 Lemma left for a sabbatical at the Stanford

                     Research Institute (SRI), stopping in London to check on

                     his "collaborators." The tests had been so encouraging, he

                     was informed, that the scientists had patented rather than

                     published. Lemma did not appear on the patent, which was

                     for an extraction process for endod. At SRI, he worked

                     with Robert M. Parkhurst, who isolated the active

                     ingredient in endod, naming it "lemmatoxin." Along with

                     chemist Wilfred A. Skinner, the researchers obtained a

                     patent on a different method.

 

                     But Lemma convinced his colleagues that because endod

                     was "poor man's medicine for a poor man's disease," it was

                     unseemly to profit from it. Accordingly, SRI donated its

                     patent to a nonprofit foundation that Lemma hoped to

                     establish in Ethiopia. "I felt we should get the farmers to

                     grow it and use it locally," Lemma explains. He challenged

                     the British scientists to donate theirs as well. The affair

                     became diplomatically embarrassing; the scientists

                     capitulated.

 

                     In 1974 the results from Adwa came out: among 3,500

                     children between one and six years in age, the prevalence of

                     schistosomiasis had fallen from 50 to 7 percent. Yet to

                     become widely adopted, endod needed the blessing of the

                     World Health Organization. That was not forthcoming. Ken

                     E. Mott, who heads the WHO's schistosomiasis project,

                     says the problem was Lemma's patents: "It was uncertain

                     how endod should be developed, because somebody had a

                     personal [and financial] agenda in this."

 

                     The WHO instead recommended a chemical molluscicide

                     marketed by Bayer at $27,000 a ton in hard currency.

                     (Endod sells for about $1,000 a ton.) The WHO

                     questioned the safety of the berry, requiring that it pass tests

                     costing millions of dollars. But the WHO would not help

                     fund such tests, and in 1987 Mott advised the Italian

                     government not to provide research grants for endod.

 

                     The endod patents then belonged to the Ethiopian Science

                     Foundation, which was eventually subsumed by the

                     Ethiopian government. Lemma attributes the WHO's

                     animosity to a difficulty believing that good science can

                     emanate from developing nations. "The things done in Africa

                     did not hold any weight in the U.S. or Canada," Parkhurst

                     agrees.

 

                     In 1976 Lemma joined the United Nations, serving on the

                     Science and Technology Commission. He convened two

                     endod conferences; funding started to trickle in from

                     foreign-aid agencies and private organizations. The

                     International Development Research Center (IDRC) in

                     Ottawa offered to conduct the toxicity tests required by the

                     WHO--provided the Ethiopian government renounced the

                     endod patents. The test results, published in 1990,

                     surprised no one. "It's as harmless as soap," states the

                     IDRC's Don de Savigny.

 

                     Along with a colleague, Lemma received the Right

                     Livelihood Award from the Swedish parliament in 1989 and

                     was finally able to establish the nonprofit Endod

                     Foundation. In 1990 the University of Toledo in Ohio

                     granted Lemma an honorary degree. After Lemma's

                     acceptance speech, his host, Harold Lee, asked if endod

                     might be effective against zebra mussels. These mussels

                     choke submerged pipes in the Great Lakes, racking up

                     billions of dollars in damage. Lemma demonstrated how to

                     apply the berries: the mussels died. In 1993 and 1994 the

                     university obtained patents on this use of endod, with

                     Lemma as an investigator. The university agreed to donate

                     10 percent of its earnings to the Endod Foundation.

 

                     Last year Lemma requested that the University of Toledo

                     donate the patents to the foundation, which would make

                     them freely available to African ventures. The university

                     responded with an offer to either sell the patents for

                     $125,000 or license them for a $50,000 fee, plus 2.5

                     percent royalties and $10,000 in legal expenses, reserving

                     the right to withdraw the license if net sales were less than

                     $10 million in five years. Such terms, Lemma says, are

                     impossible. "It is not university policy to give things away,"

                     Lee retorts. "Lemma can develop endod for another use

                     and get [his own] patent." But no one is benefiting from

                     these patents: lemmatoxin is too costly to synthesize, and no

                     African country will sell endod to the Toledo group.

 

                     Meanwhile work on schistosomiasis goes on. The IDRC is

                     conducting a field test to ensure that endod is efficacious in

                     checking the disease. The Agronomic Institute in Florence is

                     encouraging farmers to grow endod on wastelands. The

                     University of Oslo is working with Addis Ababa University

                     to check whether simply using endod as a soap can control

                     the disease.

 

                     "Endod," Mott says, "has ended up not benefiting anybody

                     except a few personalities who have extended their careers

                     by presenting themselves as advocates for the Third

                     World." Diverse reasons are offered for endod's tortuous

                     history. Parkhurst opines that "bureaucracy is what killed it

                     more than anything," along with a distrust of Third World

                     science. De Savigny points out that endod is not an

                     expensive cure backed by the biomedical industry:

                     "Something you pick off a bush doesn't have that kind of

                     support." Lee charges that Lemma does not work hard

                     enough: "Why do you think I spent two years and got a

                     patent, and he spent 30 years and got nothing?" Lemma

                     counters that endod may yet end up benefiting rural

                     Africans: "That is my wish and my dream."

 

                     This is the first of a two-part series on the legal and ethical

                     issues that arise when patenting biodiversity.

 

                     by Madhusree Mukerjee