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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 18 March, 2003, 10:40 GMT
Healing powers go online
Amazon villagers
Local healers could benefit from a new website
The internet has become the unlikely hi-tech home to generations of traditional remedies that are being used by Western drug companies.

For centuries traditional healers have been discovering and passing on remedies for all kinds of ailments with potentially huge benefits to Western pharmaceutical companies and consumers.

The lion's share of such local knowledge has been exploited by drug companies which have stamped their own patent on the discoveries and failed to return any share of the profits to local people, say the project leaders of a new website.

They hope that the Tekpad (Traditional Ecological Knowledge Prior Art Database) website will go some way to redress this bio-piracy by offering US and European patent offices a comprehensive list of traditional remedies that are already in the public domain.

Fighting bio-piracy

Patent offices can use the database when they are reviewing whether an impeding drug or remedy is original or derivative.

Stephen Hansen, Project Director Tekpad
It both protects the interests of the healers at the same time as it feeds information to the public which is free to be used and built upon
Stephen Hansen, Tekpad Project Director
"The website is a way of fighting bio-piracy which is the misuse of biological resources and knowledge," Project Director Stephen Hansen explained to the BBC's Go Digital programme.

The website is an initiative from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in partnership with a range of other organisations intent on protecting the rights of indigenous people.

Mr Hansen is aware that by drawing all this together in one place, he is also giving the drug companies a good source of information too.

"It is a double-edged sword. It both protects the interests of the healers at the same time as it feeds information to the public which is free to be used and built upon," he said.

The 30,000 entries currently on the database are all already in the public domain but the project hopes to work with local communities throughout the developing world to list new discoveries.

Healers themselves or anthropologists and other community workers can contact the website with information they wish to be added to the database.

People power

There has been a big push at international level to improve the way local knowledge is shared and plough some of the money back into the local communities.

And there are a number of high profile cases which show that local people are fighting back.

The Hoodia cactus, an indigenous plant of the Kalahari desert in Southern Africa, was discovered to have weight loss properties which could make it an excellent weapon against obesity.

Eaten for thousands of years by the bushmen to stave off hunger the plant is now at the centre of a bio-piracy row which could see local people given a percentage of the profits the cactus has yielded.

Mr Hansen believes there is still a "universe of discoveries out there" but local knowledge-holders are becoming wise to outside threats.

"Local communities are becoming more secretive and the ability to get the information is becoming more difficult," he said.

He hopes that the Tekpad website will go some way to bridging the gap.

"Giving accreditation protects the moral rights of the traditional knowledge holders," he said.




SEE ALSO:
No WTO deal on cheap drugs
18 Feb 03 |  Business
A patently absurd invention?
25 Oct 02 |  UK News
Dr Reddy eyes landmark drug win
22 Oct 02 |  Business
US plans boost for generic drugs
21 Oct 02 |  Business


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