India won a patent battle, in record three weeks, in Europe against a Spanish company, which wanted to patent melon extract to cure vitiligo (leucoderma), a disease that causes skin depigmentation to almost 65 million people globally. The rescue came from the Traditional Knowledge Digitial Library (TKDL) that has documented over 0.2 million medical formulas of Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani medical science of ancient world. I reviewed basic facts about vitiligo in my previous post; I would like to discuss the patent and information associated with it in this post.
Ayurveda was a system of medicine in ancient India and origin of Ayurveda can be traced back to 2000-500 BC. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word, which consists of Ayur meaning “life” and Veda meaning related to “knowledge or science”. Ayurveda is considered complementary and alternative form of medicine by the western world.
What is Traditional Knowledge Digital Library?
Traditional Knowledge Digital Library or TKDL is a collaborative project of Council of Science and Research (CSIR) and Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) set up by the Government of India. The objective of this library is to protect the ancient and traditional knowledge of India from bio-piracy and unethical patents.
TKDL has data on 80,000 formulations in Ayurveda, 1,000,000 in Unani and 12,000 in Siddha and is being made available in five languages — English, German, French, Spanish and Japanese. For those who are wondering, Unani and Siddha are another form of ancient alternate medicine.
A Spanish firm, Perdix Group SL, had applied for the patent in July 2006 in European Patent Office (EPO). The patent was a cream to fight against vitiligo that contained vegetal ingredients such as melon and lemon. It was...
claimed that when the cream was employed on the white patches, it resulted in regeneration of melanocytes. The interesting fact is that EPO decided to grant the patent on June 4, 2009.
How did India respond to the patent filings?
This is a classic case, where TKDL efforts and foresight comes to rescue. India provided evidence of books like Quarabadeen Najmul Ghani, Khazain-al-Adviyah and Muheet-e-Azam to EPO on July 8, 2009. The books talked about the Indian hakeems (name for doctors who practiced traditional medication) and use of melon’s anti-vitiligo properties that had been used for over 1,200 years. On July 27, EPO cancelled its “intent to grant patent’’ and refused to grant patent to the Spanish company.
I think the most amazing part of the incidence is that India was able to foil a bio-piracy bid in Europe in a record three weeks time by use of TKDL. Interestingly, under India’s Unani system of medicine, hakeems for hundreds of years have been using melon extract to cure this disease. Earlier, patent related challenges made by India lasted for years. Among the most famous was the patent application over neem’s anti-fungal properties, which took India 10 years to revoke.
You will be surprised by the natural therapies that were developed and documented in times as old as 2000 BC in Indian culture. As need and market for natural therapies is increasing, global pharmaceutical companies are looking into ancient therapies developed and used by ancient cultures like India and China. I think Indian Government has taken right step to protect it’s ancient knowledge. This is just initial effort, a lot more knowledge needs to be protected in order to cover the therapies recommended by ancient medical science like Ayurveda.