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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 29, 2004

Regulate, but don't alienate bioprospecting

There may not be a moratorium on bioprospecting after all. A legislative committee on economic development last week struck that provision from a bill calling for restrictions on bioprospecting, which, in a nutshell, is the scientific search for commercially valuable and exploitable organisms.

Of course, the language could be replaced in conference committee. But that would not be good. The benefits of bioprospecting outweigh the costs, regardless of the myths that have been perpetuated over this age-old practice.

Our earliest ancestors were bioprospectors when they experimented with the nutritional and healing values of plants and other organisms, and assessed potential threats.

Today, the aim is to discover, extract and test useful chemicals found in nature. For example, scientists are researching the painkilling properties of cone snails, snake venom and frog skin poison. They're researching cancer treatments from marine organisms and scouring nature for new antibiotics.

Unlike more traditional exploitation, like lumbering or mining, bioprospecting barely leaves an imprint on the land. The researchers don't need to collect much more of a plant or a fungus than would fill a petri dish. And most important, we all share in the benefits of these discoveries.

Restrictions needed

That said, we cannot have a bioprospecting free-for-all, like a gold rush, with a fierce drive for patents on our public lands and waters. The state has the right to conserve its resources. To a certain extent, then, restrictions are needed. We welcome the establishment of a commission to look into this.

But first, let's examine some of the concerns about bioprospecting and whether they're entirely valid. The controversy erupted last year when it was discovered that the University of Hawai'i had struck a deal with the San Diego-based Diversa Corp. to provide the company with sludge taken near a volcano in exchange for an interest in any of Diversa's discoveries.

Native Hawaiian groups and environmentalists saw the selling of the state's biological resources as a possible threat to cultural practices and gathering rights, not to mention the loss of potential ceded-land revenues.

Now, let us be clear on a few things. You cannot patent a living organism, but you can patent a process. So it's unlikely that cultural practices and gathering rights would be impeded by such a deal. Nor can you sell off biodiversity (the diversity of plant and animal life in a particular habitat or in the world as a whole) because it's a concept, not a product.

Furthermore, here's how the agreement with Diversa works, according to James Gaines, interim vice president for research at UH:

The university has a contract to supply samples to Diversa. If Diversa uses those samples and its scientists make a discovery, that process can be patented. If they choose to commercialize the product of that patent, the university is protected by a material transfer agreement that requires Diversa to negotiate a licensing agreement.

So far, they've supplied zero samples and made zero profits from the deal: "I wish we had a lot of profits that we made from Diversa; I wish it was an issue of how much of those profits we would be splitting," Gaines said.

We've got competition

Moreover, Hawai'i, despite its many thousands of unique species, rainforests and coral reefs, is not the only game in town.

For example, a lot of research these days uses extremophiles, microbes that live in conditions that would kill other creatures. They can dwell in the highest altitudes and lowest depths of the ocean, and scientists routinely to go to New Zealand for such work.

"We don't seem to have a major lock on bioproducts that don't exist elsewhere on the planet," Gaines said.

Nonetheless, we would support the establishment of a commission to look into a bioprospecting plan to protect resources and share profits. However, that panel must be knowledgeable about the issue and how similar agreements work in New Zealand and American Samoa. There's no sense in reinventing the wheel.

No draconian rules

Ultimately, we do not want to see regulations so prohibitive that they suppress research into potential threats posed by invasive plant and animal species, climate change, pollution and breakthroughs in disease therapies.

While it's in our interests to protect these resources, we must do so in a way that supports innovation and does not bog down the system with unnecessary complexity and costs.