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Fujifilm Corporation patents Kothala Himbutu - truth or fallacy?

I read with interest the articles in the Daily News that the Fujifilm Corporation has procured the patent for a valuable medicinal compound obtained from a native plant Kothala Himbutu (Salacia reticulata), and also the subsequent article about a national task force that is being formed by Science and Technology Minister. Prof Tissa Vitarana to recommend measures to safeguard indigenous biodiversity and knowledge.


More focus should be on research

Patenting of products derived from indigenous and endemic resources by foreign countries is a serious threat and an issue, and it is a concern that the authorities of our country should be aware of and take steps to counter. On other hand making baseless allegations or creating issues without first making sure of the facts is also a cause for concern since it brings discredit to the country, especially on the Government and scientific community.

The patent is for a method for preparing emulsion or dispersion, and foodstuff, skin externals and medicaments containing emulsion or dispersion obtained by the method. The inventors are listed as Jun Arakawa, Hisahiro Mori and Tomohide Ueyama and the Fujifilm Corporation has been listed as the Assignees and the patent has originated in Alexandria, Virginia, USA.

The plant in question, Kothala Himbutu (Salacia reticulata) is listed along with another 129 other plant species as potential sources of natural compounds that can be used to create emulsions and dispersions using the method that has been patented by the Fujifilm Corporation.

What is interesting is that the list contains many common plants including plants such as fennel, turmeric, barley, okra, oat, cranberry, grapefruit, mulberry, coffee, rice, wheat, pomegranate, jasmine, ginger, soybean, tamarind, onion, tomato, carrot, date, garlic, parsley, paprika, rose, grape, blueberry, spinach, macadamia nuts, mandarin orange, apple, lychee, lemon and rosemary. If we are to go by what has been claimed then we should be extremely concerned since we will have to pay patent rights to use these plants too! In addition they also list over 22 species of algae and over 14 species of yeast.


Kothala Himbutu, a medicinal plant

Basically the plants, algae and yeastgoing by the patent application are listed to point out the various ingredients that can be extracted from these natural materials to create emulsions and dispersions using the method they have patented. As typical examples of lipid ingredients contained in these plants the patent cites enumerated fatty acids, glycerides, complex lipids, terpenoids, steroids, and prostaglandins as some of them. Nowhere in the patent application is there any proprietary claim on Kothala Himbutu or any ingredient derived from it or from the other plants, algae and yeast.

Kothala Himbutu (Salacia reticulata) is also found in India and secondly a simple Internet search showed that there are close to 22 Indian suppliers who export Kothala Himbutu worldwide. This is considering there were only one supplier in Japan and one supplier in Sri Lanka. The eight patents Fujifilm Corporation has supposedly filed for Salacia are for eight methods of preparing emulsions using their methods and nowhere do they claim in those preparation processes that Salacia is an ingredient and they are patenting it, unless of course there is another patent application not in the public domain that does so.

Bio-piracy is a threat we should be aware of and have measures in place to combat. The more important lesson that can be learned from this issue is that other countries are investing heavily on research using natural ingredients and why we are not? If we are smart then we should try to emulate these efforts since very little similar research has been conducted by Sri Lankan scientists or scientific institutions on our natural resources. The biggest question again is why? Sri Lanka has scientists and science practitioners in its scientific community who have brought incredible credit to the country and have earned the respect and commendations of the international community and continue to do so.

The reality is they face many challenges when it comes to conducting research either in the laboratory or in the field in Sri Lanka. The biggest challenge is the incredible stubbornness and obstinacy in many Government institutions to support and encourage research and the lack of Government and institutional support to conduct research.

There are Research Committees established in some Government institutions whose only function it seems is to refuse permission for proposals that are submitted to do research! Pedantic and archaic legislature does not help matters either. While it is important to establish a national task force to address the issues of bio-piracy, indigenous biodiversity and knowledge it is as equally or more important to address the issues such as why there is no similar research being conducted in Sri Lanka and why there is so little Government and institutional support to conduct basic and specific scientific research in the country.

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