Row over Maasai’s genes and new biosafety law in Kenya

The Kenyan Parliament has recently enacted the Biosafety Act 2/2009  to partially regulate activities in genetically modified organisms, to establish the National Biosafey Authority, and for related purposes.   To view the text of the Act visit the Kenya Law website.

Some believe that the Act was partly the result of an acknowledgment that Kenya needs to strengthen its biotechnology law due to allegations that foreign institutions are trying to patent Kenyan genetic capacity as in the case of the University of Maryland in the US.  In this case the University and its lead-researcher, Sandra Tishkof, have applied to the EPO for a patent under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) to seek to patent the Maasai’s mutated genes which allows for higher than usual level of tolerance to milk. However, Ms Tishkof declares in a response to an article run by The Times (South Africa)  that the application was of a defensive nature in order to protect the invention from intellectual prospectors, and that the University would only want to benefit indigenous populations of Africa, by measures (for example through the creation of a trust fund) to be discussed and agreed with its African collaborators (KEMRI – Kenya Medical Research Institute).  The patent as it appears on Espacenet can be viewed here.

It is interesting to see how the press has depicted the event taking automatically a position of suspicious against developed countries. We look forward to see whether this news sparks more debate, both on the developed-developing countries battle over patenting natural resources, and on the possibility, ethical and legal, of patenting human genes. 

Blog post written by Francesca Re Manning, CAS-IP

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