This Date in UCSF History: Green To Gold

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Originally published in Synapse - The UCSF student newspaper on May 27, 2010. At first glance, the Rosy Periwinkle might seem like an innocuous flowering plant blushing its way across its native Madagascar and other tropical countries.

However, it and a host of other plants used for medicinal purposes have been at the forefront of an international debate about the commercialization of traditional medicine, often referred to as bioprospecting.

In a recent History of Modern Biomedicine lecture at UCSF, Dr. Abena Dove Os-seo-Asare, Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley, and Dr. George Rutherford, Director of UCSF’s Institute for Global Health, explored the issues of profit sharing in drug development and the rights to medicinal plants, as well as the need for continued conservation of biodiversity.

“Local healers, communities, scientists and drug companies all contribute to creating drugs, but they benefit differently,” Dr. Os-seo-Asare said, introducing the case of the Rosy Periwinkle.

This plant, which had long been used by the indigenous people of Madagascar as a treatment for diabetes, caught the attention of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly in the 19505. Alkaloids extracted from the periwinkle led to the development of two anti-cancer drugs - vincristine and vinblastine - that generated over one billion dollars in revenue for Eli Lilly.

Whether or not the people of Madagascar should receive a portion of Eli Lilly’s profits is a complicated question. On the one hand, local insights about plant-based treatments are often an essential step to drug development.

However, even though the Rosy Periwinkle originated in Madagascar, knowledge of its medicinal properties has traveled widely through coastal trading. Scientists from Eli Lilly built on the findings of healers from the Philippines and Jamaica to process patents for periwinkle alkaloids, raising the question of which people groups, if any, should receive compensation.

“I would love to get notebooks from all the healers of the world to determine rights to medicinal plants, but that’s impossible, and that’s why these issues are so difficult legally,” Dr. Osseo-Asare said.

Like the periwinkle, the Asiatic Pennywort bears the stamp of tradition in today’s modern biopharmaceutical world.

Used to treat leprosy in the 19205, this marsh plant is currently a component of antiinflammatory and anti-wrinkle products. Although pennywort is widely believed to have originated in Madagascar, the plant has long been a part of Indian ayurvedic therapies, leading Indian scientists to dispute Madagascar’s claim to pennywort.

Since there are virtually no written records of traditional uses of periwinkle, pennywort, and other medicinal plants such as hoodia and neem, assigning credit to particular countries or individuals for the discovery of plant therapies can be a Herculean task.

The issues of profit sharing and individuals’ rights to plants remain murky, but one clear conclusion is that in order to continue studying plants for their medicinal value, biodiversity must be preserved.

In his commentary following Dr. Osseo-Asare’s lecture, Dr. George Rutherford pointed out that plants with potentially invaluable medicinal properties are being decimated due to human population growth and land overuse.

“The chemicals that plants secrete to ward off predators can be used to develop drugs for people,” Dr. Rutherford said, noting that several widely-used drugs, including aspirin, quinine, and taxol are all plant-derived.

The bottom line regarding drug development and profits from plant-de-rived chemicals is that in order to continue turning green into gold, the green has to be protected first.