The wonder Himalayan herb – but who owns its IPR?

Sarcococca hookeriana (Wikipedia)

It was good to listen to presentations by bright, enthusiastic ‘young affliates’, or young scientists who have availed of TWAS South-South exchange fellowships.

An example is collaboration between scientists from Nepal and Pakistan under a TWAS South-South collaboration programme, who in turn additionally hooked up with researchers from Germany.

The result is high-quality chemical isolation and extraction of medicinal compounds from a herb, Sarcococca hookeriana, or the Himalyan sweet boxfound, found  in the tiny Himalayan country of Nepal. It is one of more than 1,700 medicinal plants that abound in Nepal which accounts for 0.1 per cent of the world’s land mass.

Krishna Devkota, who was with the Institute of Forestry in Nepal before going on a fellowship with the US National Institutes of Health, identified the plant as a potential source of medicinal compounds.

The fellowship helped him link up with the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences, Karachi, headed by Pakistan’s former high-profile science minister Atta-ur-Rahman. With the help from Germany’s Bielefelde University, the team performed sophisticated chemical tests to isolate several compounds in the laboratory.

The laboratory tests – yet to be confirmed in animal models – showed  good to moderate activity against a range of infections – lesihmaniasis, malaria and range of bacteria, and even for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, Devakota reported at a session at TWAS today (20 October).

But lots of hurdles remain. First vast amounts of plants are needed to isolate some grams of the extract for further tests, which could deplete the mountains of the natural resource. More importantly, Nepal, one of the economiccally least developed countries, has a weak law on conservation of natural resources, which is never implemented anyway, according to Devakota. Nor have the research teams resolved the complex issue ahead of undertaking the research.

Surely, we need a re-think on these kind of cases, especially in these days of concerns over biopiracy and the vexed issue of benefit sharing with local communities?

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

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