A patent and trademark office has yet to open its doors on McMurdo Sound or at Prydz Bay. But the microbes and fish that live in Antarctica and its environs have already become the subject of patent claims. The Spanish patent office granted a patent in 2002 for wound healing and other treatments with a glycoprotein drawn from the bacterium Pseudoalteromonas antarctica. Also that year Germany handed out a patent for a skin treatment using an extract from the green alga Prasiola crispa ssp. antarctica. And an application now before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office covers a process for producing antifreeze peptides discovered in Antarctic bacteria.
In all, it is estimated that more than 40 patents have been granted worldwide that rely on Antarctic flora and fauna, and the U.S. patent office has received in excess of 90 filings. These numbers are not large--and no commercial enterprise is engaged in industrial harvesting of the continent's biota. But drug companies bring in tens of billions of dollars every year from natural compounds or synthetic knockoffs inspired by them. Interest in developing pharmaceuticals from Antarctica's novel life-forms, extremophiles--which withstand cold, aridity and salinity--will continue to grow. A case in point is AMRAD Natural Products, an Australian pharmaceutical company that struck a deal with the Antarctic Cooperative Research Center at the University of Tasmania in 1995 to screen about 1,000 microbial samples a year for antibiotics and a range of other pharmaceuticals.
One or two blockbuster drugs derived from Antarctic bacteria could spur a veritable stampede. A United Nations study released in February cautioned that the push to exploit extremophiles requires new rules to protect the continent's fragile ecosystem. Regulation of these activities presents special challenges. The Antarctic Treaty System pledges to protect the continent's environment but does not address bioprospecting directly, which could encourage more of these endeavors. Moreover, existing international policies on bioprospecting are of limited use. For instance, although the Convention on Biological Diversity has established a framework for allowing access to biological resources, it assumes that individual states in fact have sovereignty over these resources, a presumption that does not hold for Antarctica.
Moreover, it is already a problem to figure out who is doing the collecting and for what purpose. Bioprospecting often involves consortia composed of public and private entities. Delineating where scientific research ends and commercial activity begins becomes a difficult task, notes a report from the U.N. University Institute of Advanced Studies entitled "The International Regime for Bioprospecting: Existing Policies and Emerging Issues for Antarctica." The document was drafted in preparation for a biodiversity meeting, the Seventh Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this past February.
The report calls for the development of regulations to govern bioprospecting that would address a series of basic questions: Who owns the continent's genetic resources? How can scientists legitimately acquire biomaterials? What measures should researchers take to protect extremophiles? Who owns the products that eventually get marketed commercially from these discoveries? And would bioprospecting violate a provision of the Antarctic Treaty System requiring that scientific results be shared freely? Determining the answers now might help waylay the legal entanglements that will inevitably occur if bioprospecting thrives and a swarm of extremophile collectors descend on Prydz Bay and other entry points to the frozen continent.
This article was originally published with the title Patents on Ice.