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Companies Lobby To Secure Patents In Antarctica

February 6, 2009

Companies developing new products through biological discovery or “bioprospecting” are trying to file patents on Antarctic organisms or molecules for items ranging from cosmetics to medicines, putting new strains on the treaty demanding all scientific findings on Antarctica be freely shared.

Jose Retamales, head of the Chilean Antarctic Institute, told Reuters that biology is dealing with a tricky situation due to the lack of clear rules for prospecting for animals and plants in Antarctica.

An annual meeting commemorating “50 years of peace and science” will include a debate over issues involving the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, including bioprospecting.

Johannes Huber, head of the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat in Buenos Aires, said the panel needed to find out if it is a problem and if so, define that problem.

“Governments have not found a consensus,” he added.

Retamales said the treaty setting the continent aside for peace and science was originally intended to defuse bigger conflicts over territorial claims during the Cold War.

The treaty prohibits mining but permits other commercial uses of Antarctica. Bioprospecting is allowed, unless it has military goals.

The pursuit of patents is often hard to square with goals of openness and shared science laid out in the 47-nation treaty, according to Retamales and other experts.

The rules of the treaty state that scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available and that all plans for scientific programs should be exchanged in advance to ensure efficiency and economy.

Products derived from Antarctica include dietary supplements, anti-freeze proteins, anti-cancer drugs, enzymes and cosmetic creams. Advances in genetic technologies make Antarctic “bioprospecting” easier.

Yves Frenot, deputy head of the French Polar Institute, said using genetic resources means very often that you are having an economic activity for a company. “That is difficult to reconcile with the Antarctic Treaty.”

Numerous companies, including consumer products groups Procter & Gamble and Unilever, French cosmetics group Clarins and Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk are in a UNU database of almost 200 “bioprospecting” bodies.

Unilever has a patent based on an anti-freeze protein in a bacteria found in an Antarctic lake that may help keep ice cream smooth.

“There are similar trends of more research into organisms found in the high seas and on the deep seabed, despite uncertainties about rights outside national waters,” said Sam Johnston, a senior research fellow at the U.N. University’s (UNU) Institute of Advanced Studies.

In Antarctica, all territorial claims are on hold under the treaty.

“Our view is that we can’t patent organisms themselves but we can have patents on processes discovered in Antarctic organisms,” said Pete Convey, a biologist at the Rothera research station on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The treaty should not block a cancer treatment, for instance, found in an Antarctic creature or plant and patented after costly research by a company, Frenot said.

“It would be a pity not to use such resources, but there are no rules. We have to invent those rules,” he said.

According to Johnson, there are worries, but no evidence, that corporate involvement might make researchers delay publication of key scientific findings until patent applications were filed.

He suggested taxing profits from Antarctic-based products to put money back into Antarctic science, with special help for poor countries. He said the U.S. and Japan seemed most reluctant to impose rules that would limit corporate access.

However, a lot of Antarctic patents go beyond animals or plants.

Norway’s Aker Biomarine, which produces a dietary supplement made from krill, has patents covering technology for processing the shrimp-like crustaceans that can quickly rot.

Aker Biomarine spokesman Geir Arne Drangeid said the patents are not really relevant to scientific research under the Antarctic Treaty.

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