Biotech patents run into criticism from the Amazon

By Eric Engleman
Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle)
April 16, 2006

From its headquarters on the shores of South Lake Union, ZymoGenetics Inc. occupies a prominent niche in Seattle's biotechnology industry. But the company has lately bumped up against some unexpected criticism from, of all places, a remote corner of the Amazon rain forest.

A Brazilian nongovernmental organization that works with indigenous tribes in the Amazon is criticizing a series of patents established by ZymoGenetics. The patents are based on chemical compounds that were first identified in the secretions of a tree frog native to the Amazon region. Local tribes have long used these secretions, which have a mind-altering effect, for shamanic hunting rituals.

The organization, Amazonlink, says the frog forms part of the traditional knowledge of local tribes. As such, the group says, ZymoGenetics should have obtained the tribes' prior consent before using the chemical compounds -- and should share in the benefits of any commercial product spawned by the company's research.

The case illustrates the sprawling nature of scientific inquiry in the modern era, where a Seattle company like ZymoGenetics can dabble with chemical agents that emerged from the jungles of Brazil.

The skirmish also provides a window into the larger international debate over "biopiracy," a term that environmental activists and others have used to describe the patenting of Third World flora and fauna by companies of the industrialized world.

To be sure, the group's demands appear to have little legal basis or chance of success. ZymoGenetics, for its part, says the frog-based compounds were never part of its core research focus, and the company recently relinquished all rights to the patents in question.

The frog at the center of this international tug-of-war, Phyllomedusa bicolor, has a colorful history.

Known as the Giant Monkey Frog, the bright green amphibian dwells in trees of the rain forest canopy. It exudes a waxy substance to keep its skin from drying out.

The chemical properties of this frog "sweat" have been well-documented over the years. One of the better-known descriptions came from a writer named Peter Gorman, who spent time with the Matses people of the Peru-Brazil border region in the 1980s.

As Gorman described it, tribal members captured the bright green frogs, tied their legs to sticks planted in the ground, and gently scraped off their secretions with a piece of split bamboo. The secretions were dried and later mixed with saliva into a paste and applied to human skin through a burn mark.

Gorman tried the substance himself, which produced vomiting and loss of control of bodily functions, followed by sleep and, later, a sensation of heightened strength and awareness. The Matses used the concoction to sharpen their senses and improve stamina for hunting in the forest.

ZymoGenetics' connection to the Amazon frog grew out of a collaboration between one of its scientists, Paul Bishop, and Peter Oeltgen, a pathology professor at the University of Kentucky at Lexington, Ky.

The two scientists -- one in Seattle, the other in heart of bluegrass country -- shared a common interest in hibernation. Bishop was interested in hibernation as a way to treat damaged heart tissue, while Oeltgen was doing research on chemical compounds that trigger a hibernation-like response in animals.

Their research led them to molecules called opioid peptides, including some that derived from the frog, Phyllomedusa bicolor. The scientists patented the use of some of the frog-based peptides to treat various heart- and liver-related conditions. They obtained five patents between 2001 and 2005.

It's those patents that caught the attention of Amazonlink, an organization based in the Brazilian state of Acre, on the densely forested western edge of the Amazon basin.

The five-person group, which says it gets funding from Brazilian government, has championed biopiracy issues and the rights of indigenous peoples. It began drawing attention to the ZymoGenetics patents through a Web site. The group also made a presentation about the frog on the sidelines of the recent Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Curitiba, Brazil.

Amazonlink's president, Michael Schmidlehner, said his group doesn't question ZymoGenetics' research or patents, but it does believe that local indigenous peoples like the Yawanawá and Katukina, who have long used the frog secretions for ritual purposes, are entitled to prior consent and benefit sharing -- principles outlined in the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international pact on environmental protection that grew out of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

"We see this is one of many cases where traditional knowledge is being used and there is no return," he said. "There should be a fairness, a fair share for the indigenous people who actually were the first ones who had this knowledge, and also preserved the resources for thousands of years."

Schmidlehner, however, admits that his group's campaign has little chance of success. The United States never ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity. That means a U.S. company like ZymoGenetics is not bound by the convention's principles.

There are other complicating factors. ZymoGenetics did not patent the frog's actual secretions, but instead patented synthetic versions of frog-based molecules for use in treating various medical conditions, a fact that weakens any claim against the company, said Sean O'Connor, an assistant professor of law at the University of Washington who specializes in biotech-related intellectual property issues. Also, the research initiated by ZymoGenetics has not advanced to clinical trials, let alone produced a commercialized product, so there are no benefits to share.

Furthermore, ZymoGenetics recently relinquished all rights to the patents in question. The company assigned all five patents to its research partner, the University of Kentucky. Spokeswoman Susan Specht said the company had been planning to reduce its patent portfolio for some time, and said the patents had never been important to ZymoGenetics in the first place.

"(B)ecause we won't develop them, it made sense to give them to a public institution with a history of exploring this research. We think that's the best use for society," Specht said in a statement.