Thing 000780 (vinblastine)

The Madagascar periwinkle is a member of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae) that grows on the Island of Madagascar. By the late 1700s, it was grown as an ornamental plant in different places over the world that were suitable. Via the Jardin des Plantes in Paris it turned up in pharmacopoeias of England, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Dominica. It is a perennial herb that is cultivated. Traditional healers have used Madagascar periwinkle for numerous purposes. In India, the juice of the leaves has been used to treat wasp stings. In Hawaii, inhabitants made an extract of the boiled plant that was used to arrest bleeding.

In 1952, Robert Laing Noble, a member of the medical faculty at the University of Western Ontario, received 25 rosy periwinkle leaves from his brother, Clark Noble, who in turn reported that the leaves were used in Jamaica for diabetes treatment when insulin was unavailable. The leaves had little effect on blood sugar but strongly inhibited white blood cells. By 1958, Robert Noble’s research team at Western Ontario isolated and purified the potent alkaloid extract now known as vinblastine. Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company, found that the extract prolonged the lives of mice with leukemia. Then clinical trials were carried out in the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto on patients with lymphoid cancers. When the test showed positive results Eli Lilly synthesized vincristine. Eli Lilly started producing the drug vindesine in 1979 under the brand name Eldisine. Vinblastine (trated as Oncovin) and vincristine (trated as Velban) are all chemotherapy drugs that are given as a treatment for some types of cancer including leukaemia, lymphoma, melanoma, breast, and lung cancer.

Jamaica didn’t make claim about the traditional knowledge that facilitated the development of vinblastine and vincristine. A court case that Eli Lilly should compensate would be difficult. Formal knowledge systems are protected as intellectual property, but informal, traditional systems have been tagged as freely available common heritage of humanity. Patents, have historically served to provide financial rewards to those appropriating indigenous knowledge and its products, while denying such rewards to the communities whose knowledge is appropriated. Patentable inventions must be novel or new and nonobviousness. The substance of a patent may not be the discovery of some natural phenomenon. Thus medicinal plants in their state, or even diluted or otherwise processed, are not patentable. However, if a Western scientist isolates the plant’s active substance in a way that does not occur in nature, it becomes patentable. Patentability under intellectual property law is systematically biased against the innovations and knowledge of indigenous and farmers’ communities. Under the auspices of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), states negotiated a nonbinding International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (Undertaking) in 1983. The first version of the Undertaking, supported by nations from the Southern, declared that all plant germplasm, both raw and elite breeders’ lines, was equally part of the “common heritage of mankind” and therefore available to all. Most Northern countries rejected this version of the Undertaking. By 1989, FAO members had effectively added protection for breeders’ rights. By 1991, amendments to the Undertaking had practically abandoned the common heritage principle for improved varieties. In 1992 the Convention on Biological Diversity, brought concerns over the use and appropriation of indigenous and local scientific knowledge of natural resources. One of it’s objectives stated:

[T]he fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources, including by appropriate access to genetic resources and by appropriate transfer of relevant technologies, taking into account all rights over those resources and to technologies, and by appropriate funding. [...] Subject to its national legislation, respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge, innovations and practices.155 This provision recognizes for the first time in a global treaty the special function of indigenous and local communities in the innovation and preservation of biological knowledge. It also commits other treaty parties to overseeing the relationship between States and the indigenous and local communities within their territory, although it leaves implementation squarely in the hands of national governments. The exact reach of the provision is presently unclear, and it admittedly leaves the extent and manner in which benefits are to be shared to the discretion of each State..