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Fujifilm Corporation patents Kothala Himbutu - Truth or fallacy?

By Ravi Corea
I read with interest the articles in a news paper correspondent, Disna Mudalige stating that the Fujifilm Corporation has procured the patent for a valuable medicinal compound obtained from a native plant known as Kothala Himbutu (Salacia reticulata), and also the subsequent article about a national task force that is being formed by the Science and Technology Minister, Dr. Tissa Vitarana to recommend measures to safeguard indigenous bio-diversity and knowledge.

Patenting of products derived from indigenous and endemic resources by foreign countries is a serious threat and an issue, and it is a concern that the authorities of our country should be aware of and take steps to counter. On other hand, making baseless allegations or creating issues without first making sure of the facts is also a cause for concern since it brings discredit to the country, especially on the government and scientific community of our country. Furthermore, writing on such issues without checking the facts raises issues about the integrity of investigative reporting of our media.

Since I was very much concerned by the issues raised by these two articles I made an effort to trace the patent and see the validity of these allegations. An online search brought up the only Japanese patent application in the public domain that had been filed and had Kothala Himbutu (Salacia reticulata) in the text. The patent is for a “Method for preparing emulsion or dispersion, and foodstuff, skin externals and medicaments containing emulsion or dispersion obtained by the method.” The inventors are listed as Jun Arakawa, Hisahiro Mori and Tomohide Ueyama and the Fujifilm Corporation has been listed as the Assignees and the patent has originated in Alexandria, Virginia, USA. The plant in question, Kothala Himbutu (Salacia reticulata) is listed along with another 129 other plant species as potential sources of natural compounds that can be used to create emulsions and dispersions using the method that has been patented by the Fujifilm Corporation.

What is interesting is that the list contains many common plants including plants such as fennel, turmeric, barley, okra, oat, cranberry, grapefruit, mulberry, coffee, rice, wheat, pomegranate, jasmine, ginger, soybean, tamarind, onion, tomato, carrot, date, garlic, parsley, paprika, rose, grape, blueberry, spinach, macadamia nuts, mandarin orange, apple, lychee, lemon and rosemary. If we are to go by what is been claimed then we should be extremely concerned since we will have to pay patent rights to use these plants too! In addition they also list over 22 species of algae and over 14 species of yeast. Basically the plants, algae and yeast―going by the patent application are listed to point out the various ingredients that can be extracted from these natural materials to create emulsions and dispersions using the method they have patented. As typical examples of lipid ingredients contained in these plants the patent cites enumerated fatty acids, glycerides, complex lipids, terpenoids, steroids, and prostaglandins as some of them.

Nowhere in the patent application is there any proprietary claim on Kothala Himbutu or any ingredient derived from it or from the other plants, algae and yeast. The article further goes on to claim that: Kothala Himbutu is a variety only found in Sri Lanka, it has been illegally exported, and that Fujifilm has procured 8 patents related to the genus Salacia. These are all erroneous claims. Firstly, Kothala Himbutu (Salacia reticulata) is also found in India and secondly a simple Internet search showed that there are close to 22 Indian suppliers who export Kothala Himbutu worldwide.

This is considering there were only one supplier in Japan and one supplier in Sri Lanka. The 8 patents Fujifilm Corporation has supposedly filed for Salacia are for 8 methods of preparing emulsions using their methods and nowhere do they claim in those preparation processes that Salacia is an ingredient and they are patenting it, unless of course, there is another patent application not in the public domain that does so. Also if we are to go by or believe what the article is claiming then it is not only ingredients from Kothala Himbutu that we are been deprived from using but ingredients derived from over 160 species of commonly used plants, algae and yeast! This is much greater cause for concern.

Bio-piracy is a threat we should be aware of and have measures in place to combat. Making false allegations and crying ‘wolf” for no reason is another issue. The more important lesson that can be learned from this issue is that other countries are investing heavily on research using natural ingredients and why we are not? A search in the Internet will show that there are many patents existing using compounds derived from various plant varieties of the genus Salacia alone. If we are smart then we should try to emulate these efforts since very little similar research is been conducted by Sri Lankan scientists or scientific institutions on our natural resources.

The biggest question again is why? Sri Lanka has scientists and science practitioners in its scientific community who have brought incredible credit to the country and have earned the respect and commendations of the international community and continue to do so. The reality is they face many challenges when it comes to conducting research either in the laboratory or in the field in Sri Lanka. The biggest challenge is the incredible stubbornness and obstinacy in many government institutions to support and encourage research and the lack of government and institutional support to conduct research.

In fact, there are Research Committees established in some government institutions whose only function it seems is to refuse permission for proposals that are submitted to do research! Pedantic and archaic legislature does not help matters either. While it is important to establish a national task force to address the issues of bio-piracy, indigenous biodiversity and knowledge it is as equally or more important to address the issues such as why there is no similar research been conducted in Sri Lanka and why there is so little government and institutional support to conduct basic and specific scientific research in the country?

Addressing these issues is what is important and also that ensures that we are focusing on the real issues and concerns and not getting carried away on non issues due to the lack of science literacy in self-appointed environmental gurus and prophets. Ironically it is these same self-appointed environmental gurus and prophets who are the naysayers when it comes to scientific research―since though they have no scientific qualifications they have wormed themselves into positions where they have become an impediment and obstruction to scientific research and development in the country.