Univ. of California-Berkeley, Samoa Make Deal to Share Profits if Cloned Gene From Samoan Tree Works as AIDS Drug
The University of California-Berkeley and the Samoan government on Thursday announced an "unusual agreement" to share any profits the university might derive from a potential HIV/AIDS drug it is developing from the bark of a Samoan tree, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. The researchers are developing an antiviral compound by cloning a gene extracted from the bark of the mamala tree, which has antiviral properties that are "well known" to Samoan traditional healers, according to the Chronicle. The deal provides Samoa 50% of any royalties the university derives from the genetic sequence of prostratin, the drug extracted from the bark, and supports Samoa's claim of national sovereignty over the sequence (St. John, San Francisco Chronicle, 10/1). Samoa's share of the profits would go to the government, villages and families of healers who first introduced the plant's medicinal properties, the AP/San Jose Mercury News reports. UC-Berkeley and Samoa also will negotiate distributing the drug to developing nations at a reduced cost (AP/San Jose Mercury News, 9/30). Clinical trials of the drug are expected to begin soon in West Hollywood, Calif., through the AIDS Research Alliance of America, according to the Chronicle.
The deal is considered unusual because drug companies previously often collected plants from foreign countries without sharing earnings with the countries, according to Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical engineering at Berkeley. Keasling added, "This recognizes the Samoans for their intellectual property and gives them a source of revenue." Hans Keil, Samoa's minister of trade and tourism, said, "Prostratin is Samoa's gift to the world," adding, "We are pleased to accept the University of California as a full partner in the effort to isolate the prostratin genes." Dr. Paul Cox, director of the Institute for Ethnobotany at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii who first learned about the plant from two traditional healers in Samoa, said, "What excites me about this agreement is it basically argues that the knowledge of these ancient healers is equal to the best genetic engineering that the university can muster" (San Francisco Chronicle, 10/1).
In 2001, Samoa signed a deal with the not-for-profit group AIDS Research Alliance to receive 20% of the profits from any drug developed using prostratin. That agreement is thought to be the first time an indigenous community had been offered a share of the proceeds from a medicine that local healers helped discover. Under the agreement, the Samoan village where Cox did his research would receive 7% of any profits made from an HIV/AIDS treatment containing prostratin and the families of the now-deceased indigenous healers who originally discovered the healing properties would receive 0.4% of all profits (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/14/01). The National Cancer Institute patent on prostratin as an antiretroviral drug requires commercial developers to negotiate profit-sharing with Samoa, according to the AP/Mercury News (AP/San Jose Mercury News, 9/30).