Boosting bioprospects

    A new approach to registering ownership should rebuild confidence, benefiting all stakeholders.

    Exploring plants to find new compounds for drugs is an age-old practice. But as scientific sophistication in probing genetic resources has increased, the politics of the endeavour now called ‘bioprospecting’ have deepened to a point where the rate of discovery has been seriously eroded.

    A path out of the forest of international diplomatic hazards must be found. A new phase of negotiations through the Convention on Biological Diversity may provide that course — and not a moment too soon, as economic pressures in developing nations are wiping out the very biodiversity that the convention was meant to save.

    The convention — set up 12 years ago and now adopted by 188 nations — was designed as a conservation tool with an incentive system. It was intended to save wildlands and give developing nations, particularly in the tropics, a share of the rewards of bioprospecting.

    But making this model work in the real world of suspicion and competing economic needs has been harder than many imagined. Research projects have been delayed or halted as nations have developed restrictive regulatory systems, spurred at times by political demagoguery. Drug companies have stopped funding bioprospecting enterprises, surely a short-sighted business strategy. As a result, few economic rewards are returning to developing nations.

    Despite these shortcomings, now is not the time to abandon the convention's ideals. There have been some notable successes (see page 598). Researchers who operate transparently while building the capacity to conduct research within developing nations are demonstrating that the convention's goals are achievable. And the importance of conservation worldwide has become increasingly plain.

    After its seventh conference of the parties in February in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the convention agreed that during the next two years an added framework for access and benefit sharing would be created. A draft of this framework is to be presented in Brazil in May 2006 at the next conference of the parties.

    A key component of this framework is a certificate of origin that links compounds discovered in the jungle to drugs that may be developed at pharmaceutical companies. Such a document could eliminate developing nations' fears of a rip-off. And it could provide drug-company investors with a clear chain of a compound's ownership.

    Convention delegates will meet in Bangkok early next year and in Spain in 2006 to construct a draft of this framework for the Brazil meeting. They should work to make the creation of certificates of origin a reality.

    Non-governmental organizations obsessed with blocking the use of genetic resources should take a step back and look at the opportunities that discovery provides. Those economic powers that fear a challenge to the US patent system should see the new framework as an enhancement of property rights, not something to undermine them. And leaders of nations with the richest biological diversity should ensure that the new framework enhances conservation.

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    Boosting bioprospects. Nature 429, 585 (2004).

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