Monday, February 9, 2009

Face Cream from Antarctica

A recent Reuters article addressed a little-considered but important problem: bioprospecting in the Antarctic. Making money by developing naturally occurring organisms into marketable products is nothing new, but whether it's a strain of rice unique to one geographic region or algae from a region ostensibly owned by nobody, profiting from, and patenting, nature brings up many issues of sovereignty and ownership.

Although Antarctica is a continent devoted to scientific research, bioprospecting is not forbidden unless used to develop military technology. Bioprospecting typically means that someone has developed a product from some part of an organism. It's different from fishing or farming in that the organism more provides raw material that is developed into something else, such as cosmetics or pharmaceuticals. So Antarctic research has the potential to make discoveries that companies would find attractive - cancer-fighting chemicals, for instance. But how does this square with the idea that Antarctic scientists should freely share data? As the article notes, some fear that scientists will begin holding back data until patents are filed (typically, organisms as a whole cannot be patented but processes or substances found in an organism can be). Motives for profit may also impact the kind of research and the methods used. For example, the drive to discover new and exotic life forms in Antarctica may lead to increased research in ecologically sensitive areas like sub-glacial lakes.

Developing medicines from Antarctic organisms is not a bad thing. But policymakers should probably lay down some guidelines to ensure that the continent isn't trampled in a race to find an enzyme that helps prevent wrinkles or keeps commercially prepared ice cream smooth - both examples of Antarctic-derived products mentioned in the article. Furthermore, since the continent technically belongs to nobody, is it necessarily fair that countries with the resources to sponsor research programs will get even richer off of their Antarctic discoveries? Although pharmaceutical companies certainly devote substantial resources toward developing new drugs, should they be the only ones to benefit from the original research done by government - sponsored science?

Is there a way to divide up profits from Antarctic research fairly?