Thursday, November 22, 2007

The battle for ayurveda: India is racing to record the details of its traditional medicine

By Andrew Buncombe
Published: 23 November 2007
They range from the everyday to the decidedly obscure, from items with a specific, specialised use to those with a host of applications. Their common heritage is one of the world's oldest cultures, and their details are being gathered together to guard against theft by the West.

For several years the Indian authorities have been collating information about hundreds of thousands of plants, cures, foods and even yoga poses to create a vast digital database of traditional knowledge dating back to up to 5,000 years ago, available in five international languages. Now, the first part of that database – relating to ayurveda or traditional Indian medicine – has been completed and it is set to launch the fight back against what some have termed "bio-colonialism".

"The ayurveda part has been completed," said Dr Vinod Gupta, the chairman of India's National Institute for Science Communication and Information Resources (Niscair), which is overseeing the project. "Now we are negotiating an agreement with international patent offices [for access to this database]."

The database, totalling more than 30 million pages and known as the Traditional Knowledge Data Library, has come about for one very simple reason: to prevent Western pharmaceutical giants and others using this traditional Indian information to create a product for which they then obtain a patent.

The danger of such "misappropriation" is all too real. In 1994 an American company was granted a patent for a product based on the seeds of the need tree, an item that had for centuries been used in India as an insecticide. It took the Indian authorities more than 10 years to have the patent overturned. Similar battles were fought over a product based on the spice turmeric – traditionally used to heal wounds – as well as a Texan company's attempt to trademark its strain of rice as "Texmati".

"In 2000 we did a study of the US patent database. We found there were 4,986 patents for products based on medicinal plants," said Dr Gupta. "Of those around 80 per cent were based on plants from India ... 50 percent of those patents should never have been given – there was no change to the traditional knowledge."

Under international guidelines, patents should not be given if it is shown there is "prior knowledge" or existing information about the product or item. In the United States – where many of the patent applications have been made – this prior existing knowledge is only recognised if the information has been written down. It does not consider information passed down for centuries by means of oral tradition to be valid.

Unlike many cultures from which traditional information has been misappropriated, India has an extensive written tradition. But most of the writing was in languages not widely read in the West. For example ayurvedic texts were written in Sanskrit or Hindi, writings about unani medicine – based on Ancient Greek practices now only practiced in the sub-continent – were in Arabic and Persian, while writings about another form of traditional medicine known as siddha was in the Tamil language.

To get around this challenge, Dr Gupta called in more than 100 practitioners of Ayurveda, siddha and unani to help compile the information using computer software. The database is being made available in Japanese, English, German, French and Spanish and the contents will be made available to patent officials once agreements on protecting the information and preventing it from being passed to corporations, are reached.

Also included within the database are more than 1,500 positions or asanas of yoga. This is because in recent years several yoga teachers in the West have tried to copyright methods of teaching yoga that they are argue are unique but which have existed for centuries in India.

One high-profile case involved Los Angeles-based Bikram Choudhury, the self-styled "yoga teacher to the stars". Mr Choudhury, who moved to America in the 1970s, first obtained a copyright for a book he wrote. But when other teachers began copying the way he taught yoga – with 26 specific poses performed in a room heated to 41C (105F) – he sought legal advice and was told to obtain a copyright for the moves themselves. It has been recognised by the US courts despite India's objections.

Dr Dinesh Katoch, an adviser on ayurveda within India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, said more than 50,000 different ayurvedic formulations for treating everything from heart disease to memory loss had been entered into the database. Some of the information is mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient Hindu texts that date back several thousand years.

"We want to use this information for the global benefit but it should be done in a judicious way, not by stealing," he said, sitting in his office in central Delhi. "We want to prevent misappropriation. Prevention is the most important thing because it is not easy to repeal a patent."

In addition to the considerable cost incurred by the Indian authorities fighting patents they do not believe are genuine or fair, there is a widespread feeling that Western corporations should not be making vast profits from traditional knowledge while the people who discovered the information receive no benefit.

But campaigners say the misappropriation also has cultural and political implications. "I have termed it bio-colonialism," said Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmental activist and author.

"The international intellectual property laws as promoted by the World Trade Organisation [WTO] promote bio-colonialism because while they say there should be a global system to patent everything, the reality is that patent inspection is done at a national level. If you want to have a global system you have to have global inspection," she said. "This would involve setting up a global database. This will take a decade and cost billions of dollars."

Vital ingredients

* Arjuna Tree

The bark is a traditional Ayurvedic herbal cure for a variety of ills and is now widely used throughout the world as a high-blood pressure treatment. It is thought to improve the function of the cardiac muscle and to stabilise cholesterol levels, and it contains anti-oxidant properties.

* Basmati Rice

Authentic basmati rice is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas and the Indian government has tried hard to protect the grain. A patent granted by the US Patent Office to a local company for new strains of rice similar to basmati was revoked after a legal battle with the Indian government.

* Turmeric

It is grown mostly in Bengal and other areas of south-east Asia but, in addition to a curry spice, it can be used to heal wounds. In 1995, the US Patent Office granted a patent on its healing properties but Indian scientists protested and it was revoked.

* Brahmi

This creeping herb is used in many Indian preparations and has gained global recognition for its ability to improve mental acuity and fight cognitive decay. It is thought that brahmi boosts the memory and has calming properties. In India, the plant is often used in salads and soups.

Jeremy Laurance: Little evidence, but much tradition

It is an ancient form of therapy with 5,000-year history and a string of modern celebrity followers but there is "no convincing evidence" that ayurvedic medicine works.

Enthusiastically promoted by users including Cherie Blair, Madonna, Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow, ayurveda has become more of a brand than a treatment in the West. There are ayurvedic recipes and it embraces meditation, diet, yoga and herbal medicine, as well as featuring a lexicon that defines consciousness as the "dream state of the cosmic being".

Offered in hotels, spas and retreats, as well as in the charitable Ayurvedic hospital in west London, its underlying principle is that the body and mind must be maintained in balance. Ayurvedic medicines are combinations of different herbs, tailor-made for each individual, which are given to correct imbalances that would otherwise lead to physical or psychological ill health.

In Britain, practitioners must undertake a three-year BSc degree course, followed by a 1,000-hour internship with an ayurvedic doctor, in order to be registered with the British Association of Ayurvedic Practitioners. They charge £50-60 on the first occasion and around £30 for follow-up appointments.

Despite the long training, scientific peer-reviewed evidence for the effectiveness of what ayurvedic practitioners do is scant. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee investigation into alternative medicine concluded in 2005 that the case for ayurvedic medicine was "not proven".

Some studies have suggested that certain herbal combinations may be effective for heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Triphala, the most popular ayurvedic remedy in India, made from the powdered and dried fruit of threeplants and taken as an aid to digestion, has been shown to slow cancer growth in mice.

Max Pittler, deputy head of the department of complementary medicine at Exeter University said: "There may be individual trials that suggest certain herbal combinations may be effective but there is no really convincing body of evidence that specific ayurvedic mixtures have specific effects. There is no good evidence that it is beneficial. "

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Eight-limbed girl revered as deity has marathon surgery

By Andrew Buncombe in Delhi
Published: 07 November 2007
Indian surgeons were performing a marathon operation last night on a two-year-old girl who was born with four arms and four legs.

The girl, called Lakshmi after the four-armed Hindu goddess of wealth, is revered as a deity by some in her impoverished village. But doctors say Lakshmi is connected at the pelvis to a headless "parasitic twin" who stopped developing in her mother's womb while she absorbed the limbs, kidneys and other body parts. The rare condition is called isciopagus and it occurs in between one in 50,000 to one in 200,000 births.

"Everybody considers her a goddess at our village," her father, Shambhu, who has only one name, told the Associated Press. "All this expenditure has happened to make her normal. So far, everything is fine."

The operation to separate Lakshmi is complicated and high-risk and involves a team of least 30 medics. The surgeons at Bangalore's Sparsh Hospital have to separate two spines and entangled nerves. At present, Lakshmi has four kidneys, two stomachs and two chest cavities and she is unable to stand or walk. Doctors say there is about a 25 per cent chance she could die during the operation.

Surgeons started the operation, which was expected to last up to 40 hours, at 7am yesterday and reported good progress. They said the little girl was stable and although they had encountered "some surprises" in the initial stages of the operation, those had been taken care of.

Last night, they were preparing to begin actually separating the little girl from the "twin". "It's a big team effort of a lot of skilled surgeons who will be putting their heart and soul into solving the problem of Lakshmi," said Dr Sharan Patil, the lead surgeon. "It's going to take many, many hours on a continuous basis to operate."

The hospital's foundation is paying for the operation because the girl's family could not afford it, said a spokesman. Indeed, her parents struggled to even get her to the point where she could go to the hospital

Lakshmi is from the village of Arhariya in Bihar, one of India's poorest states. Her parents said they had been offered money to sell her. "We took her to a hospital in Delhi but circus owners heard about her, wanted to turn her into a freak show and offered us money," her father told an Indian newspaper.
Williams leads tributes to Samaritans founder

By Sadie Gray
Published: 09 November 2007
The Rev Chad Varah, who founded the Samaritans in the crypt of a London church more than 50 years ago, has died aged 95.

Tributes were led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who said Dr Varah had changed attitudes to suicide and brought a non-judgmental approach to people coping with depressive illness.

Dr Varah launched the Samaritans in 1953 "to befriend the suicidal and despairing" after conducting the funeral of a 13-year-old girl who had killed herself. Uneducated about sex, she had mistaken her first period for a symptom of a sexually transmitted disease which she feared would afford her a painful, shameful death.

Her case also prompted him to become one of the earliest proponents of sex education, particularly to poorly educated young people, for which conservative 1950s society vilified him as a "dirty old man".

Now, the Samaritans has 202 branches throughout the UK and the Republic of Ireland, manned by some 15,500 volunteers, and supports Befrienders Worldwide, a confidential listening service with 400 centres in 40 countries.

Dr Williams said: "Chad Varah made a unique contribution to the life of our whole society. His instinct that a listening and sympathetic ear could make a difference has proved to be enormously important to those who felt alone and with nowhere to turn to.

"His vision and energy in the foundation of the Samaritans and its subsequent development is a legacy that stretches far beyond the church and far beyond these shores; one that will continue to bring help to those who 'just need someone to talk to'. He will be greatly missed."

Felicity Varah, the eldest of his five children, said: "Thanks to my father, Samaritans has been working for over 50 years, providing confidential, emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which may lead to suicide.

"His relationship with Samaritans had many chapters, from the moment he founded it in his beloved church, St Stephen Walbrook in 1953, through its expansion worldwide, to the latter years when he stepped back to allow the movement to grow and flourish."

Dr Varah died in hospital in Basingstoke yesterday. The eldest of nine children, he was born in Barton-on-Humber, Lincolnshire, where his father was the vicar. He studied at Worksop College, Nottinghamshire, before going up to Keble College, Oxford, where he read politics, philosophy and economics.

To subsidise his vicar's salary and to meet the financial demands of a growing family in the 1940s, he had a second career as a comic scriptwriter and visualiser, notably as one of the brains behind Dan Dare. His wife, Doris, died in 1993, and he is survived by four of his children.

The Prince of Wales, Samaritans' patron, said: "Chad Varah was an utterly remarkable man who founded an organisation which has saved the lives of countless people since 1953. He was an outstanding humanitarian and a great Briton." Steve Evans, the chairman of Samaritans, added: "It was Chad's inspiration and untiring determination that created Samaritans. It is our honour and determination to carry on his extraordinary work in the way he would have liked." The organisation's chief executive Dominic Rudd added: "Chad was quite simply an extraordinary man, and his legacy is a strengthened Samaritans which seeks to make emotional health part of everyday conversation. Chad's vision – of a society in which people are able to explore their feelings without fear or prejudice, in turn respecting the feelings of others – has touched millions of people in the 54 years since we started to offer emotional support."
Dust is turned into wallpaper for V&A show

By Ciar Byrne, Arts and Media Correspondent
Published: 09 November 2007

For allergy sufferers it is the stuff of nightmares. The artist Catherine Bertola has taken the dust collected by the army of cleaners at the Victoria and Albert Museum and turned it into art, as part of an exhibition to mark the opening of the museum's new contemporary space next week.
Bertola has used the dust to make wallpaper, based on a design by William Morris, "Marigold", which she discovered from trawling through the V&A's archive, had hung on the walls of the gallery at the turn of the last century.
As part of her research for the work, Everything and Nothing, Bertola joined the cleaners as they did their after-hours rounds of the galleries, vacuuming the mosaic and marble floors and polishing glass cabinets. For the past eight weeks, the cleaners have posted dust from the vacuum cleaners to Bertola's home in Newcastle and she has pasted it on to paper, padding it down and brushing it, before cutting it into the intricate flower pattern. As the dust contains insects, the museum insisted the wallpaper should be covered in varnish to prevent infestation.
The piece is part of the show Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft, the first to be held in the V&A's refurbished Porter Gallery which opens on Tuesday, showcasing the works of artists who use meticulous craft techniques to produce their work.
The wallpaper has only been part installed and will growin size as Bertola adds to it throughout the exhibition. It hangs near examples of some of the oldest surviving wall-paper, from 18th-century China.
Explaining her work, Bertola said: "Dust collects over time and within it there's a history of the place, the poetic sense of what it represents. We think of museums as dusty places, but the dust is constantly removed."
It is not the first time the 31-year-old artist has used dust in her work. In her adopted home city of Newcastle (Bertola was in fact born in Rugby) she created wallpaper and a hearth rug from dust in the former office of the renowned locomotive engineer George Stephenson.
Laurie Britton Newell, the V&A's curator of contemporary programmes, said: "Catherine is an interesting example of someone who works with such ordinary materials and turns them into ornate pieces."
Other artists featured in the exhibition include Yoshihiro Suda, a Japanese artist who carves leaves and flowers from wood, Lu Shengzhong, who has a contemporary take on the Chinese folk art of paper cutting, the American artist Anne Wilson who creates installations from lace and pins and the Nigerian Olu Amoda who works with scrap metal.