From Molecules to Medicines
The Use of Genetic Resources
in Pharmaceutical Research
Astrid J. Scholz
Before genetically altered food products reach the supermarket shelves, before genetically engineered crop varieties are planted in the fields, and before genetic material from one organism is transferred into another, there is a critical first step: a trait that is desirable for one organism must be discovered in another. Biochemical compounds elicit desirable traits, such as disease resistance, by affecting cellular activity. Gene-encoded proteins called enzymes produce these compounds. Discovering and characterizing these compounds is a long and costly procedure, which has historically taken place in the field and garden through slow, selective breeding. Today, the discovery of biochemically active compounds—those that produce desirable traits in living organisms like plants and animals, including humans—relies on technologies that are shared between agricultural and pharmaceutical research divisions in many companies.
In this chapter I focus on the drug discovery process in pharmaceutical research to illustrate how deeply the new biotechnologies constitute the politics and economics of genetic resources. My analysis concerns the interest of the pharmaceutical industry in biological diversity and draws on interviews with researchers, managers, and policymakers and on participant observation at sites of drug research—including industry, university, and government laboratories. 1
The politics of access to, use of, and benefits from biodiversity in general, and genetic resources in particular, are interwoven with technological changes that have swept the pharmaceutical industry. Current policy discourses are founded on a “utilitarian rationale” for protecting biological diversity. Simply put, this rationale characterizes biologically diverse regions as repositories of raw materials for science and industry, especially for medical science and the pharmaceutical industry. The utilitarian rationale