Monday, September 27, 1999 Published at 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
India to protect herbal remedies
Spices such as tumeric have medicinal properties
Scientists in India are to set up a database for traditional and herbal medicine to prevent other countries issuing patents on Indian products.
In recent years researchers in the United States have tried to patent several Indian herbal remedies, forcing the Indian government to take legal action in the international courts to protect products developed in the country.
These include tumeric, an antiseptic powder for wounds, a mixture of aubergine and gourd that is used to treat diabetes and the products of the neem tree that have many medicinal qualities.
According to one of India's leading research scientists, Dr R. A. Mashelker, the availability of an easily accessible database could have avoided controversy and court cases.
Dr Mashelker himself took up the issue of tumeric with the United States patent office.
He convinced them that its healing properties were widely known in India thus making the spice ineligible for an American patent.
He said a patent officer who could simply call up such information on a computer could easily dismiss a patent application.
India has a vast amount of such knowledge, and cataloguing it will be a huge challenge.
Dr Mashelker says some traditional healing has been written about in English but most is in texts in other languages, including the ancient tongue, sanskrit.
Still more is kept as verbal knowledge by practitioners of traditional medicine.
The idea, said Dr Mashelker, is to disseminate this as widely as possible so that no one can have exclusive rights to the knowledge.
First this would take the form of a patent-orientated database but eventually it would be available on the Internet.
He said the only way developing countries can truly benefit from their traditional medicine is in partnership with rich nations, not by battling them in court and in the media.