Japanese universities patent traditional knowledge-based painkilling
The patenting of kratom,
well-known for its traditional medicinal uses in Southeast Asia call
into question the degree of actual innovation contained in the Japanese
Japanese scientists have patented pain-killing drugs from kratom (Mitragyna
speciosa), a well-known Southeast Asian medicinal plant. According to
the researchers, from Chiba National University and Josai University,
the kratom painkillers act like opium-derived analgesics (such as
morphine) and are especially useful because they do not have some of the
undesirable side effects of opiates. Patents have been issued in Japan
and the United States, and patent applications may be pending elsewhere.
Kratom (Thai) or ketum (Malay) is a well-known plant native to
Thailand, Malaysia, parts of Indonesia and the Philippines, and Papua
New Guinea. Kratom has long had an important place in Southeast Asian
traditional medicine. It is botanically related to coffee, but has
stronger effects on its users. Because kratom can be abused as a
recreational drug, its use is banned in many places.
In Southeast Asian traditional medicine, different preparations of
kratom are used in wound dressings, to treat the effects of fever, as a
sedative, and as a substitute for opium in treatment of addicts. Kratom
leaves are also traditionally chewed or made into tea in areas of the
Malaysian peninsula, although legal prohibitions now limit this
In the early 2000s, Japanese researchers began analyzing compounds
extracted from kratom as part of a program to assess medicinal plants.
They identified one kratom compound, 7-hydroxymitragynine, as having
particularly potent painkilling effects – considerably stronger, in
fact, than morphine in animal experiments.
Yet this constituent of kratom was chemically distinct from opium
poppy-derived drugs and did not paralyze the gastrointestinal system, a
morphine side effect that limits the latter drug’s use. Convinced of
7-hydroxymitragynine’s pharmaceutical potential, the researchers then
made chemical variations of it that are suitable for use as
pharmaceuticals, and identified ways to manufacture the compounds
Chiba National University and Josai University have now obtained
three patents on kratom-derived drugs: US patent 8247428, issued 21
August 2012, Japanese patent 5308352, issued 27 May 2013 and US patent
86480090, issued February 11, 2014. These patents do not appear to have
entered into a regional and national phase in Europe, but may be pending
or issued in other jurisdictions, whose data is not available online.The
US patents claim 7-hydroxymitragynine-derived compounds as “matter”, and
their use as veterinary drugs and human pharmaceuticals. The claims
include any drug containing from 0.1% to 100% of the kratom compound in
any conceivable pharmaceutical administration, ranging from pills to
creams to aerosols.
There can be no question that traditional medicinal use of kratom
very strongly anticipates the Japanese universities’ claims. Traditional
use in wound dressings clearly suggests painkilling properties, as does
kratom’s use to treat fevers and as a sedative.
And even more particularly, its traditional use as an opium
substitute directly suggests kratom’s activity on opioid receptors, the
same property of the compounds patented by Chiba and Josai.
These well-documented traditional medicinal uses of kratom call into
question the degree of actual innovation contained in the Japanese work,
as traditional knowledge guided the researchers to both kratom’s pain
killing effects and indicated the specific mode of action of the
Chiba National and Josai Universities are in the Tokyo metropolitan
area. Whereas Chiba is a semi-governmental national university, Josai is
a smaller private entity. With Japanese government support, the team of
researchers that identified 7-hydroxymitragynine and then patented its
derivatives is actively developing the compounds. One of the kratom-based
drugs has been assigned an experimental drug name, MGM-16, and is being
tested in animals.
Patent documents and other publications reviewed are silent on the
origin of the kratom used by Chiba and Josai, although because the plant
is widely known and trafficked internationally as an illicit drug,
obtaining kratom samples was likely trivial.University records and
publications indicate a relationship between the Pharmacognosy
Department at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and Hiromitsu
Takayama, of the Chiba Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences.
Takayama is listed as the lead inventor in the patents. There are no
Thai co-inventors, and all patent and other documents reviewed are
silent on questions of benefit sharing.
There is a very strong case to be made that the intellectual property
claimed by Josai and Chiba National Universities in Japan is derived
from and includes knowledge and innovation from Southeast Asian
traditional medicines and their traditional users.
But no information could be located to suggest that appropriate
benefit sharing measures are in place. If such agreements are in place,
Chiba National and Josai Universities should make their details and
counterparts public, so that Southeast Asia countries and the
traditional knowledge holders may evaluate if they are appropriate and
– Third World Network Features.