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A Case of Good Research or 'Genetic Colonialism'?

Medicine: A Papua New Guinea tribesman came out of the bush seeking help for ill children. When his blood was found to contain clues to leukemia, the U.S. patented it, generating ethical questions.

April 21, 1996|CHARLES J. HANLEY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

GOROKA, Papua New Guinea — He's out there somewhere in the wild gorges of the Yuat River, hunting pig, harvesting yam, a young tribesman whose heart belongs to the jungle--but whose blood belongs to the U.S. government.

Or so says Patent No. 5,397,696.

The story of the Hagahai tribesman, of how the United States of America patented the blood cells of one of Earth's most primitive citizens, could only be a tale from the bioengineered '90s, a time when the prehistoric can still come face to face with the futuristic, and the technology of tomorrow often outwits the society of today.

The story has emerged only slowly in recent months, but the rhetoric has begun to sharpen over what some call "genetic colonialism." It could become a test case for the bio-age.

In March, the government of this poor western Pacific nation angrily summoned the U.S. ambassador for a full explanation, as it began to build a possible case against Washington to take to the World Court.

Even the American anthropologist who helped obtain the patent, Carol Jenkins, believes the growing furor may do some good. "We have to come to grips with this issue of biological patents," she said.

Coming to grips would mean answering some fundamental questions: Should life forms be patentable? Is it ethical to assign commercial rights for human genes, or blood cells, or viruses? Can a government 16,000 miles away claim some right over bits of your body it finds interesting?

In a way, the Hagahai saga begins only in 1983, when a few tribesmen first ventured out of the forest. Before then, the 300 or so Hagahai, one of 1,000 language groups on this huge Melanesian island, were unknown to outsiders.

But the tale really goes back through uncounted centuries of Hagahai life in the Shrader mountains, where tiny bands of the hunter-gatherers lived off the land, in a remote region of rushing rivers and jungle rich in wild pigs, birds of paradise--and mosquitoes.

The mosquitoes and the malaria they carry had been killing more and more Hagahai children in recent decades. Hearing from other tribes about the outside world, a few Hagahai went looking for help.

One who responded was Jenkins, a medical anthropologist at Papua New Guinea's Institute of Medical Research, in this rugged highlands town 100 miles southeast of the Hagahai rain forest.

Flying out by helicopter, the American scientist began a long-term study of this isolated people, work that won her international attention and eventually a call from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Its virologists, engaged in pure research on retroviruses, the family that includes the AIDS virus, were surveying remote populations for variants of the microbes. They asked to check the Hagahai.

Subsequent blood tests found that many Hagahai carried a human T-cell leukemia virus, although they were not afflicted with the disease.

"I told them we wanted to see a 'binitang'--an insect--in their blood," Jenkins recalled. She said she assured them it would not make them sick, but could help others.

In Washington, NIH researchers laboriously analyzed the blood, intrigued with what appeared to be a benign variant virus that might help them better understand its deadlier relatives.

Using a sample from an unidentified 21-year-old Hagahai male, they established a "cell line"--a self-perpetuating culture of virus-infected white blood cells. And in 1991 they quietly applied for a patent. In March 1995, it was issued.

U.S. Patent 5,397,696 applies to "a human T-cell line (PNG-1) . . . and to the infecting virus." It lists Jenkins and four U.S. government researchers as "inventors" and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as "assignee." The tribesman is not identified or listed as a beneficiary.

The document suggests the "invention" may be useful in developing a vaccine, or in devising screening techniques for T-cell leukemia.

It means that for 17 years the U.S. government--or a company that buys rights to the patent--will have the sole right to use that individual's virus-infected cells for commercial purposes.

Such patents' international standing remains shaky. But U.S. court decisions have cleared the way for the patenting of dozens of human genes, DNA sequences and cell lines in America to "protect" them for product development, generally disease diagnostic tests or treatments.

"A company is going to need exclusivity to be able to invest the money and go to the marketplace and get a return," NIH patent lawyer Barbara McGarey said in a Washington interview.

Business, in other words, is business, even when it's biology.

Not everyone accepts that.

Almost 200 U.S. religious leaders have called for a moratorium on gene patenting, saying life is not a "product of human invention."

The European Parliament is working to ban patents on life forms.

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