|HUMBERTO MÁRQUEZ / ipsnews.net 09/02/2011|
|CARACAS, Feb 9, 2011 (IPS) – Millions of cancer patients around the world benefit from a medication called Paclitaxel (Taxol), which may begin to be produced from a new source: fungi found at the summit of Venezuela’s flat-topped mountains. But the indigenous communities who have lived in that area since time immemorial will receive no benefits, and were not even consulted on the matter.In another case, researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, after signing an agreement with the Venezuelan government in 1998, began to do field work early this decade among Yanomami communities in the extreme southern part of this South American country.
They studied and collected medicinal plants used by the Yanomami, an Amazon jungle people, as well as learning from their strategies of managing these natural resources.
“Our countries are highly vulnerable to biopiracy, to what is practically an invasion by global pharmaceutical companies,” Julio César Centeno, a forestry specialist at the University of Los Andes in Venezuela, told IPS. “They evade international agreements and take advantage of the weak monitoring of biodiversity in our country.”
María Elisa Febres, a lawyer for the Vitales environmental organisation, told IPS that “continued efforts to bring this issue to light and to pursue cases in the Andean and Amazon regions has helped bring about progress, like the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol, last October.”
The protocol adopted in the Japanese city of Nagoya is aimed at managing access to the natural genetic resources from plants and animals and the sharing of benefits derived by pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies from the use of such resources with the developing nations and indigenous communities where they are found.
Vitalis has documented the case of Taxol, the commercial name under which the New York-based Bristol Myers Squibb registered Paclitaxel, a chemotherapy drug used to treat breast cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, head and neck cancer, bladder cancer, and AIDS-related Kaposis sarcoma.
It is also potentially useful to treat psoriasis, congenital polycystic kidney disease, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.
By 2000, Bristol’s annual sales of Taxol amounted to nearly 1.6 billion dollars, and by 2003 the drug had been used to treat one million patients.
Paclitaxel was originally extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), native to the northwest coastal region of the U.S.
But it is a small, scarce, extremely slow-growing tree, and the drug’s active ingredient is concentrated in the bark, in small quantities (one gram per 14 kilos of bark). That means at least three trees must be destroyed to obtain enough Paclitaxel to treat just one patient.
For that reason, a furor began two decades ago to obtain Paclitaxel from other sources: first, other trees of the genus Taxus, and later from fungi that could be produced more easily and at a lower cost, using biotechnology, said Gary Strobel, a plant biologist at Montana State University.
Strobel visited remote areas on four continents, and found Paclitaxel in organisms present in plants in Australia, Nepal and Venezuela.
In Venezuela, he discovered it in Stegolerium kukenani and Seimatoantlerium tepuiense, fungi that grow on plants found at the top of the Kukenán and Roraima tepuis, table-top mountains or mesas in the highlands area straddling the borders of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana.
He also found the Serratia marcescens bacterium, capable of producing Oocydin A, tested as an anti-cancer agent.
The area where the researchers extracted plant samples, without informing or receiving permission from local communities, is the 30,000 square km Canaima National Park best known for the ancient flat-topped, steep-sided tepuis, which harbour ecosystems composed of unique plant and animal species. The park is home to some 30,000 Pemón indigenous people.
Years ago, Strobel informed Vitalis that he had tried and failed to contact authorities in the countries he visited, and that he collected samples in Venezuela in 1998. He also said that at one point when he was at the summit of a tepui, he didn’t know if he was in Brazil, Guyana or Venezuela.
Ferrer pointed out that Strobel’s research has given rise, in the United States, to some 50 patents for Montana State University in association with pharmaceutical giants like Bristol Myers Squibb and Cytoclonal Pharmaceutics, and that some of the patents broadly cover “microorganisms from any source” that are capable of producing Paclitaxel.
In the case of the Yanomami, perhaps the most ancient living tribe in Latin America, who apparently have lived in the area that is today southern Venezuela and northern Brazil for 25,000 years or more, Centeno pointed out that the agreement between the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the Venezuelan government allowed eight Swiss researchers to study the Amerindian group’s medicinal plants and practices.
“But it turns out that according to the Yanomami, when someone falls ill, they don’t make medicine as we know it in the West, but use magic or spiritual rites that the academic world does not recognise, because it only works with substances and procedures that have effects that can be proven and experimentally repeated,” the forestry expert said.
Anthropologist Daniel de Barandiarán, in his classic text “Children of the Moon”, showed how the Yanomami shaman “heals” by restoring the patient’s relations with the “hikolas” or spirits of plants and animals.
Centeno said “The knowledge collected among the Yanomami — which New Tribes missionaries from the U.S. did for years — and substances gathered in the areas where they live is presented, in Zurich for example, as a discovery that brings prestige and money to beneficiaries in Europe.”
He said researchers from universities in Venezuela have also carried out studies on plants and indigenous knowledge among communities like the Yanomami “under the argument, perhaps plausible, that this information should be compiled before it is lost due to the shrinking of their territory or of the native groups themselves.”
But, he stressed, “we should set an example by consulting the indigenous communities that live in Venezuela’s border areas, allowing them to participate, and we must share the benefits with these people who live in a state of such great material need.” (END)