Intellectual Property and Bioprospecting: A Model Legal Framework

April 9, 2018

Society has long enjoyed the benefits of medical advances. In numerous cases, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical (biopharmaceutical) industries build on knowledge accumulated over centuries by traditional communities. As in the case of aspirin and morphine, the use of this knowledge has reduced the time and cost it takes to develop new drugs. Despite the community’s contribution, the law only provides rights to the person or firm that produces a medical product or service at the end of the process of discovery. Information about the knowledge that allowed these medical advancements to develop rarely comes to the forefront, and this creates tension between source communities and pharmaceutical companies. The controversy surrounding the involvement of Pfizer and Unilever in research into weight loss products based on the Hoodia plant used by the San people of the Kalahari Desert for centuries as an appetite suppressant is a prime example of potential problems with the current system.1 The tension that arises in this relationship is whether source communities have any claim emanating from their input in the modern drug development process.