India's first patent for Kerala Tribal's anti-diabetic drug

(Special Report)
(By Mukundan CM)

Thiruvananthapuram, April 3 : The traditional anti-diabetic medicine used for generations by the Kaani Tribals in South Kerala is going to create history of sorts as the national patent office in New Delhi is going to formally grant it India's first patent for a tribal medicine. This is being regarded as a far-reaching development capable of changing general perceptions on Adivasi medicine in the present globalisation era. The anti-diabetic preparation is being dispensed by Mr. Eashwaran Kani Vaidyar, a tribal healer of Elanchiyam, near Palode, in Thiruvananthapuram district.

Scientifically proven to be potent and safe, the medicine is derived from the roots of a small-sized tree, "Humboldita Decurrens" (known locally as "neeru vatti" or "chembra valli" in Malayalam), which the Kaani tribals have been using to treat diabetes and certain allergies long before modern medicine came into being.

The application for patent for the medicine was made as part of a programme drawn up by Kerala Institute for Research Training and Development Studies for SC-STs (KIRTADS), Kozhicode, to obtain intellectual property rights for tribal medical knowledge. A joint application for patent for the drug was filed by the Regional Research Laboratory at Thiruvananthapuram of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology (SCTIMST), Thiruvananthapuram, and the KIRTADS in 1997.

The three bodies have also filed for international patent with the Geneva-based Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), which functions under the World Intellectual Property Organisation, to thwart any transnational move to appropriate rights on "neeru vatti"/"chembra valli". An application for patent was filed in the United States in February this year after the application for India patent was accepted. The final procedures for granting the patent are expected to be completed by authorities in India shortly.

According to KIRTADS, future profits from commercial exploitation of this anti-diabetic medicine would be used for tribal welfare activities in general and of the Kaani tribals in particular.

The research and trials on the medicine was the fallout of an Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by CSIR, RRL and KIRTADS in 1996 to jointly put hoary tribal medicinal recipies to scientific tests. As per the MoU, while the three bodies will remain joint owners of all intellectual property rights emerging from the initiative, the entire profits from their commercial exploitation will go to the tribal communities.

Tests conducted at the Regional Research Laboratory had shown that "neeru vatti"/"chembra valli" was capable of reducing blood sugar levels by as much as 51 per cent, which is easily comparable to the therapeutic effects of Daonil, a popular allopathic anti-diabetes preparation. However, the major advantage identified with this tribal medicine is its absolute safety without side-effects which also can be used even in its crude form.

Notably, the present project had survived a shock when the application for patenting another traditional medicine of Kaani tribals, equally effective to contain blood sugar, was turned down after the National Patent Office found that a Japanese company, Dai Nippon Sugar Co. of Tokyo, had managed to grab its global patent a few years ago. This powerful blood sugar inhibiting medicines of Kaanis, based on "Chakarakolly" ("Gymnema Sylvestra"), was denied patent after it underwent successful tests and trials at the CSIR Regional Research Laboratory and SCTIMST. Ironically, the patent for "Chakarakolly" was denied due to Japan's grabbing of the world right although it is not a plant native to Japan.

It is to be recalled that ethnobotanists and intellectual property protection groups have been urging since long for measures to stop exploitation of tribal medical knowledge by big pharmaceutical firms, including multinationals, after many such cases were documented. Viewed from this angle, the patent for "neeru vatti"/"chembra valli" is expected to open the flood-gates for more such ethnomedicine recipies to enjoy patent protection. The patent office took four years to complete the process, after numerous hard work for longer period by RRL scientists and researchers at the SCTIMST to ensure its therapeutic efficiency and safety before putting up the patent application.

The KIRTADS, holding the patent for the Kaanis, will shortly begin large-scale production of this anti-diabetic preparations. Although there was a suggestion made to KIRTADS that the manufacturing should be under the aegis of Kerala State Federation of SC and ST Cooperatives Ltd, Thiruvananthapuram, a final decision on this is yet to be taken.

Although Eashwaran Kani Vaidyar is the present custodian of the knowledge about the process for making the anti-diabetic drug, he will cease to be its sole custodian once the patent is formally granted as indigenous knowledge is meant to be used for the benefit of all - tribals and non-tribals alike.

It is to be recalled that a controversy arose few years ago when a Government agency, the Tropical Botanical Gardens Research Institute (TBGRI), Thiruvananthapuram, leased out the manufacturing rights on "Arogyapacha", a rejuvenating herb used traditionally by the Kaani tribals, to a private Ayurvedic commercial firm in Coimbator, Tamil Nadu, by promising half of the proceeds to Kaanis and the TBGRI opting to keep the rest for itself. This controversy, however, helped to draw keen attention of all the concerned on the effectiveness of Kerala tribals' traditional herbal medicines to cure various disease.

According to sources, two other tribal medicines picked-up from Kerala's Adivasi groups are under process for patent the same.

There are, however, problems which the KIRTADS face for large scale manufacture of tribal medicines. Their foremost worry is availability of equally large quantity of raw material to facilitate the large-scale production. Although it is widely known that numerous such indigenous medicinal recipies are scattered among various tribals of Kerala, which helped them to survive traditionally, scarcely a few have been documented yet. Notably, the spoken tribal languages in Kerala have no script.

Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: April 5, 2001
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