Excerpt from Michael F. Brown, Who Owns Native Culture? (Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 135-138.  (Footnotes deleted)

[. . .] Debates surrounding Shaman [Pharmaceutical's] commercialization of a familiar medicine from the New World tropics illustrate the difficulty of reconciling folk knowledge and the formal validation procedures of modern institutions. The gap becomes more evident in another widely cited case, that of the rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus).

This species, usually described as native to Madagascar, is the source of two powerful cancer-fighting drugs, vincristine and vinblastine, that were isolated, tested, and then marketed by Eli Lilly beginning in the late 1950s. Vincristine eventually generated substantial profits for Lilly, none of which ever reached the nation of Madagascar.

Lilly’s allegedly exploitative use of the rosy periwinkle has become the ethnobotanical equivalent of an urban legend. Countless books and articles claim that Madagascar was unfairly denied revenues from drugs whose discovery depended on its biodiversity and ethnomedical traditions. Fact-checking reveals a different story. First, botanists disagree about whether the plant is native to Madagascar or whether it was simply first described there. Catharanthus roseus is a resolutely cosmopolitan species now cultivated on six continents and thoroughly integrated into the folk healing traditions of countries as distant from one another as England, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Dominica. The botanist Judith Sumner notes that Catharanthus seeds were distributed to London’s Chelsea Physic Garden by the Jardin des Plantes, Paris, in the mid-1700s. From London, they traveled the globe. Far from being an endangered species, Catharanthus roseus is regarded, at least in the state of Florida, as an aggressive exotic that gardeners should banish from their gardens.

According to the scientists working at Eli Lilly, the literature available to them identified the rosy periwinkle as a folk treatment for diabetes, not as a cancer medicine. The first specimens used by Lilly were collected in India. Robert Noble, a Canadian scientist whose independent research on Catharanthus played a key role in subsequent developments, obtained his first specimens from a physician in Jamaica who believed the periwinkle would revolutionize diabetes treatment. At the time, no compounds that affected blood sugar could be isolated from the plant. (Some were identified years later.) Instead, scientists came upon alkaloids that proved effective as agents for treating cancer. This discovery, coupled with innovative extraction techniques, led to the development of vincristine and vinblastine, drugs that have helped doctors achieve remission rates of 90 percent or more in cases of childhood lymphocytic leukemia.

When Lilly released vincristine, under the trade name Oncovin, it was enormously expensive to produce. Norman R. Farnsworth, a distinguished researcher in the field of pharmacognosy (medical botany) who was part of Eli Lilly’s Catharanthus research team, recalls that the company purchased purified vincristine from a producer in Budapest for $1.3 million per kilogram, making it one of the most expensive substances on earth at the time. Gordon Svoboda, another scientist who played a critical role in the research, has said that it was difficult to obtain sufficient quantities of Catharanthus leaves to refine more than small amounts of the two alkaloids. Concerns about the political situation in Madagascar and in India led Lilly to buy from newly established periwinkle plantations in Texas, where the leaves were harvested mechanically. Upon initial release of Oncovin, Lilly announced that it would be distributing the drug at cost. Later the company quietly shifted the drug into the for-profit category.

Given this complex background, it is hard to insist that Madagascar must enjoy special standing in discussions of profits generated by the rosy periwinkle’s biochemistry. Even if the species originated there, it was naturalized in other parts of the world before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The plant’s use by indigenous and peasant communities strongly suggested bioactivity, but Eli Lilly’s patents drew on properties that were not part of folk knowledge. In short, this is a weak case for those who argue that the pharmaceutical industry has reaped great profits by exploiting the ethnobotanical knowledge of particular nations or ethnic communities. The history of the rosy periwinkle is typical—not as an instance of clear-cut biopiracy but as an example of how difficult it can be to disentangle proprietary claims originating in folk traditions.