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Research into traditional medicine is vital for to tackling diseases that affect the world's poor, according to intellectual property and health specialists who met this week in Geneva, Switzerland.

The closed discussion of stakeholders from academia, industry and non-governmental organisations took place at a meeting organised by the World Health Organization (WHO) Commission on Intellectual Property Rights, Innovation and Public Health on 30-31 May. An open forum was held on 1 June.

Several delegates said that the international health community could not afford to ignore the potential of traditional medicines — used by 80 per cent of people living in developing countries because they often do not have access to, or cannot afford to pay for, modern medicines.

Traditional medicine has also become a useful resource for pharmaceutical companies searching for new therapeutic compounds. But the issues surrounding intellectual property governing such indigenous resources are complex, and international bodies such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) are still working out the rules for benefit sharing and patents.

Participants at the meeting also recommended that practitioners of traditional medicine be taught about intellectual property issues.

The delegates discussed the importance of documenting traditional medicine information — which in some countries is only passed on orally — to preserve it for future generations, and also to allow patents that exploit existing traditional knowledge to be contested.

The difficulty in assessing the effectiveness of traditional medicines has proven to be a barrier to its acceptance and integration into modern healthcare. The delegates said that while empirical methods used in Western science, such as clinical trials, were often unsuited to evaluating traditional medicines, some method of assessment was needed if the rest of the world was to benefit from this fund of traditional knowledge.

The role of innovation in creating drugs for diseases of the developing world was also a major theme of the forum.

Participants discussed the importance for developing countries to build innovation systems in developing countries that are non-linear, and involve linkages between their various institutions. Industrialised countries should invest not just in research and development in developing countries but also contribute to strengthening these nations' innovative capacity, they added.

Strengthening developing countries' capacity for regulating both new drugs and ethical aspects of research is also crucial, said delegates.

The time it takes regulatory bodies in different countries to approve a drug varies greatly, for instance — some needing 2-3 years, others just 4-5 months — so investigation into the standards prevalent in different countries was needed. Countries should also look to the WHO or the European Union regulations for guidance, said the delegates.

Another major issue of debate was the role of patents in stimulating research and development into so-called 'neglected' diseases. Some argued that patents are useful only when there is a commercial market — something that tends to be absent in poor countries. Nor are patents an incentive for research into drugs for diseases such as leishmaniasis or Chagas disease, which exclusively affect those in developing countries.

Players other than the pharmaceutical industry were important to create a more diverse research and development community, said the delegates, including biotechnology companies and public-private partnerships.

Suggestion was made of a potential "mediated industry collaboration" with organisations such as the WHO's Tropical Diseases Research Centre acting as a 'clearing house' for promising compounds to be researched as potential treatments for neglected diseases.

These recommendations, along with several others, are to be discussed by the WHO commission, and brought together in a report to be submitted to the meeting of the World Health Assembly next year.

Read more about traditional medicine, research and development and intellectual property in SciDev.Net's traditional medicine spotlightresearch and development dossier and intellectual property dossier.