Hey, those are <em>our</em> ancient remedies!

Nishta Tiwari, a doctor of India's ayurvedic medicine, among her remedies.

KAI RYSSDAL: You've heard of traditional medicines, right? Perhaps they're not wildly popular here. But in some developing countries millions of people rely on them. Ancient remedies made out of herbs or spices. American and European drug companies have noticed. And they've filed thousands of patent claims for those more unorthodox treatments. Well, the Indian government's fighting back. Trying to protect the country's traditional intellectual property. Suzanne Marmion has more from New Delhi.


SUZANNE MARMION: Nishta Tiwari is a doctor of India's ayurvedic medicine. When I complain to her about migraines, she prepares a prescription.NISHTA TIWARI: This is coral and conch, and this is pearl.

MARMION: Pearl?

TIWARI: Yeah.

After giving me a powder of coral, conch shell and pearl, she throws a little freebie into my bag to treat some blisters on my feet. It's an ointment made out of turmeric. This yellow spice is what started the fight between India and America over so-called "biopiracy." In 1995, two Indian nationals from the Mississippi Medical Center successfully patented turmeric for its wound-healing properties. But millions of Indians have been using their favorite curry spice to treat wounds and rashes for as long as anybody can remember.

VK Gupta is the director of the Indian government's National Institute of Science, Communication and Information Resources. He remembers how the country erupted at America's attempt to profit from an ayurvedic cure that's been in the public domain for centuries.

VK GUPTA: Our parliament couldn't work for a few days.

MARMION: The parliament couldn't work?

GUPTA: Yes. Everybody was discussing this.

The patent was revoked. But Gupta says this poaching represents a growing trend. When pharmaceutical companies research a new drug, it can take a decade and, on average, more than $800 million. So Gupta says that's why the big firms have started looking closely at India's existing traditional medicines.

GUPTA: The big firms want to not pay anything in return and want to have a shorter path.

But India wants to stop them on that path, cold. It's now databasing millions of pages of ancient cures for patent officers to peruse. The project is called the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library.

In a roomful of computers cooled by powerful air conditioning, workers are databasing ancient texts, including pictures of yoga positions. Yoga is a $3 billion industry in the US, and somebody once tried to patent yoga, too.

Dr. Jaya Saklani Kala painstakingly types ayurvedic remedies thousand of years old into her computer in alphanumeric code.

DR. JAYA SAKLANI KALA: This is code for saliva, forehead, honey, antiseptic wound cleansing. This is aphrodisiac. We need a code for everything.

The database's software gives each plant and phrase a code. It then converts the information from Hindi, Farsi, Arabic or Sanskrit into English, French, German, Spanish or Japanese. Kala says helping patent officers search the database in their own languages will protect India's wealth of knowledge.

DR. KALA: Our ancient rishis or ancient scientists, they were explorers. They observed each and every bird, plant. And all this has been documented in our classical texts. You cannot have a person taking the sole right over something that has existed already.

Mongolia, Thailand and some African countries want to model their own databases after this one. But pharmaceutical companies say it could discourage companies from researching new cures based on old medicines. And they deny that they've been stealing India's remedies. India and other countries in the developing world say they just want to collaborate on the process in the future — and maybe receive a cut from any new blockbuster drugs that emerge.

In New Delhi, I'm Suzanne Marmion for Marketplace.

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