'The story is entirely groundless'

Print edition : March 27, 1999

The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, where Dolly the sheep clone was created, carries out basic and strategic research relevant to farm animal production and associated industries. It is a major international centre with extensive expertise in cell and molecular biology, transgenic technology and biometrical genetics, and has laboratory and farm facilities for research on all livestock species. It is sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council of the British Government and funded from a variety of sources, including the European Union. Here are e-mail responses obtained from Dr. Harry Griffin, Assistant Director (Science) of the Institute, to questions from R. Krishnakumar:

What is your response to the allegations made against your Institute with regard to the Vechur patent issue?

As one headline said, mystery certainly shrouds the Vechur patent issue. The story is entirely groundless. The Roslin Institute does not have any programme for conservation of "germplasm" of rare breeds from either the U.K. or overseas. We have never carried out any research on Vechur cattle and we have not attempted to import embryos or germplasm or patent the breed or its genome. The claim that we have erased 36 references to work on Vechur cattle from our Web site is simply nonsense. We have done no such work and no reference to Vechur cattle has ever been on our Web site.

The Roslin Institute recently received a request for clarification from the Dean of the Kerala Agricultural University, Dr. S. Sulochana, and our Director, Professor Graham Bulfield, faxed a reply on August 7. The essence of his response was that we did not have a clue what this story was about. The Roslin Institute has received no communication from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

In subsequent reports, Ms. Vandana Shiva cites a particular patent number, EP 765390. This application is entitled "Alpha-lactalbumin gene constructs" and was submitted by PPL Therapeutics, not the Roslin Institute. PPL's application refers to the use of gene constructs for the targeting of the expression of human alpha-lactalbumin to the mammary gland of transgenic cows. The aim is to provide milk with enhanced nutritional value for premature infants. There is no connection whatsoever with any specific breed of cattle, Indian or otherwise.

Let me therefore review the evidence so far. An Indian environmentalist claims that the Roslin Institute has "stolen" the Vechur and have applied for patents on it or its genome. No evidence to support this allegation is provided and indeed news reports from India refers to "charges" and "rumours" and to a senior university professor who was apparently prepared to give the report some limited credence but was not prepared to be named. A search by an Indian Government official found no evidence of any relevant patent.

Moreover, the supposed value of Vechur cattle - the high fat content of its milk - is in fact a liability in Europe and North America where the demand is to decrease milk fat. And when challenged to provide evidence about the alleged patenting by the Roslin Institute, Ms. Vandana Shiva cites a patent application submitted from an entirely different organisation that concerns the introduction of human genes into cows.

Is the Roslin Institute or any of its associated institutions involved in any way with research on Vechur cattle or, for that matter, on any other Indian breed?

No.

Was there any formal or informal proposal from anyone in the KAU for collaborative research on Vechur cattle?

No.

What is the procedure that your Institute or its associated institutions follow, in case you are interested in research on an indigenous breed of cattle like Vechur? How do you usually go about it?

We have no programme on indigenous breeds.

Given the fact that research institutions in developing countries are often ill-equipped to conduct advanced biotechnology research, how do you react to frequent complaints in India that research institutes in developed countries are patenting genes derived from indigenous Indian breeds to the detriment of Indian interests?

We would like to see the evidence that this is actually happening. We are certainly not involved.

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