TWN Info Service on Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge (Mar15/01)
17 March 2015
Third World Network

Dear friends and colleagues,

We are pleased to share with you the results of research by Edward Hammond that reveals patent claims by three French universities over a promising new anti-cancer compound in a plant called "sabara" that is found from Senegal to Sudan. It has long been used by the Dogon people of Mali who are known for their well-developed traditional medicines system.

The French researchers freely concede that Dogon traditional knowledge led them to the drug, but their patent applications list French inventors and are owned by French institutions. The Universite Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, one of the applicants, is advertising rights to the candidate drug, seeking to attract private sector bidders.

This case is one of many that reaffirms again the urgent need for countries with biodiversity and traditional knowledge of its uses, especially developing countries, to put in place effective laws to prevent misappropriation.

Below is the report in English. Download Spanish and French versions.

With best wishes,
Third World Network



Sabara: An African Anti-Cancer Medicinal Plant Claimed by French Universities

By Edward Hammond

Third World Network:

The  Dogon  people  of  Mali  are  widely known  for  their unique culture, including a well-developed system of traditional medicine. Attracted by the strength of Dogon traditional  knowledge, since  at least  2006, a  group  of French bioprospectors from Auvergne has focused a drug discovery effort on Dogon medicinal plants.

The bioprospectors were recently successful,  finding a  promising  new anti-cancer compound in a  plant  used  in traditional medicine not only by the Dogon, but by other peoples across the Sahel and nearby regions. Three French universities have together filed patent claims, but there’s no evidence that Africa will benefit from this “French discovery”.

The researchers freely concede that Dogon traditional knowledge led them to the drug, but their patent  applications  list French  inventors  and are owned  by  French institutions. The Universite Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand, one of the applicants, is advertising rights to the candidate drug, seeking to attract private sector bidders.[1]

The French  researchers, who  also  include  staff  from  Clermont  University  and  the Superior  National  School  of  Chemistry  (Ecole Nationale Sup้rieure de Chimie),also in Clermont-Ferrand,  are affiliated  with the  “Analgesic  Institute”, a public-private partnership including pharmaceutical companies and the French government.[2]

As part of their work under the banner of the  Analgesic Institute, the researchers were initially seeking new pain killers in Malian  medicinal  plants.  After collecting samples in a Dogon town,however, the bioprospectors realized  that they had a potential cancer drug, which they have named Guieranon B.

The source of the compound is Guiera senegalensis,a widely distributed shrub found from Senegal to Sudan. Guiera senegalensis has a variety of common names [3] given by peoples   that live across its range, many of whom also use it in their traditional medicine.The  shrub’s name in  the  Hausa  language, sabara, is the most  frequently used name for the plant in English.(In French it is called guiera du Senegal.)

In 2011, before filing for patent, Pierre Chalard, one of the“inventors”of Guieranon B, was unequivocal in crediting traditional  knowledge  with leading the group to sabara. Based at Universite Blaise Pascal, Chalard  sought to drum up interest in his group’s research, writing: [4]

The perfect  knowledge of the cultural milieu of West African traditional medicineof our Malian partners led us to select a plant, Guiera du Senegal (Guiera  senegalensis), prescribed  by  Malian  practitioners for  the treatment  of visceral pain since the dawn of time, in order to study its chemicalcomposition

Chalard has also specified the origin of the sabara samples used, writing, “the plant material was collected at S้gu้, a village of the Dogon located northeast of Bamako…”

How the French research group moved from painkillers to cancer drugs is not publicly documented, although a 2011article by Chalard mentions screening sabara extracts for anticancer activity, in addition to the analgesic interest.

The bioprospectors were perhaps  propelled bya 2006 article  by French, Belgian,and Burkinabe researchers identifying another sabara extract, Guieranon  A, as having anti-cancer potential. [5] Those and other researchers that have subsequently studied Guieranon A,however,do not appear to have filed any patent claims.

Sabara  is also related  to  the  bushwillow  (Combretum)  family,  the source of combrestatin, another  promising anticancer drug and that, taken together with sabara’s widespread traditional medicinal use, is another suggestion of sabara’s potential anticancer activity.

A reading of the patent claims of Blaise Pascal and Clermont Universities would Suggest that use of sabara extracts to treat cancer is a novel idea, but that is not the case according to Nigerian (and Malaysian) researchers, who report that sabara is a well-known cancer treatment in Nigeria.

According  to  the  researchers,  knowledge of  sabara’s anti-cancer potential  stems from its use for that purpose by Hausa and Kanuri peoples in the country’s north, where sabara is traditionally used to treat breast  cancer, one of  the same uses of Guieranon B claimed as a French “invention” in the patent applications:[6] 

[Sabara] is widely used  by  the Hausa and Kanuri tribes  in  the  Northern-Eastern  parts of  Nigeria…  the  recommended cultural practices for treatment of breast cancer and associated breast inflammatory lesions(e.g. mastitis) include regular drinking and taking bath with fresh water decoction of G. senegalensis leaves…poultices of fresh leaves are made in some instances and rubbed all over the affected breast.

And that is only one of several reports linking sabara to cancer treatment in African traditional medicine. In 1994, Sudanese researchers reported that sabara leaves and bark were used to treat tumors in that country’s White Nile Province.[7] And Plants Used Against Cancer (by Jonathan Hartwell), a highly regarded 1982 compilation of 1960s and 70s papers written by US National Institutes of Health researchers, states that Guiera has a long history of use in treatments against cancer.[8]

The French universities’patent applications  claim Guieranon B as matter, other compounds  that are  similar  to Guieranon B, pharmaceuticals that include  those compounds, use to treat cancer in general and, more specifically, use ofGuieranon B to treat breast, colon, and prostate cancers. As the first claim of the patent application is not specifically linked to cancer therapy, future patent applications might build on the first by claiming other uses of Guieranon B (e.g. as ananalgesic).

A patent has been granted in France (FR2980196) and is pending in the remainder of  Europe. To date, patent applications have also been filed in the United States, South  Korea,  and China. The search report of the international patent application (WO2013037964) is positive with respect to the patent’s claims, apparently because the molecule Guieranon B  has not  been specifically described before in Western scientific literature.

The “inventors” of Guieranon  B have, in the past, co-authored articles with Malian researchers, including staff from the country’s Traditional  Medicine  Department (D้partement M้decine Traditionnelle) in Bamako. Pierre  Chalard, the lead Inventor in the patent applications, however, did not respond to questions regarding informed consent and benefit sharing arrangements[9], and  no references to  any relevant benefit sharing arrangement could otherwise be found.

Guieranon B does not appear to merit the description of being a French invention. More accurately, it might be said that, using African traditional medicine and Malian genetic resources, the  French researchers refined anti-cancer knowledge  about sabara into the terms of modern Western chemistry. While this research will prove useful if Guieranon B pans out as a cancer drug, the use of sabara extracts to treat cancer  is not a French invention and affording the French  institutions  exclusive rights over  the compound is unjustifiable.  Instead, use of sabara extracts to treat cancer is something that belongs to the African peoples that have used the plant in their traditional medicine for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.

For  the  implementation  of the Nagoya Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which entered into force in  October 2014,  this case draws particular attention to the Protocol’s Article 8(a),which references the need for national access and benefit sharing laws to address cases of changes of researchers’ intent.

The  project that  resulted  in patent  claims  on Guieranon B did not begin as cancer research. At the time samples were collected in Mali, the researchers’ intent was to develop  drugs  to  treat  pain.  The  Universite Blaise Pascal has not responded to requests  for further  information  to  shed  light  on  this  question, but it  seems quite possible that the Dogon that provided samples were not fully aware of the scope of ways in which the French Universities would use the samples.

More generally, like other misappropriation casesbefore it, this signals the need for national laws and bioprospecting contracts to establish and enforce the bioprospector’s obligations independent of the stated intent of the research, due to ever-present possibility of unexpected findings or changes in intent. Indeed, if care is  not taken to either apply benefit sharing  to any use of collected  materials and knowledge, or (preferably) to specifically itemize and restrict the purposes for which access  is  allowed,  a  shift in  intent  of  research –  undertaken  for honest  or  less honorable  reasons – could  be  a  way  for  a  bioprospector  to  evade benefit sharing obligations.

[1]  Universite Blaise Pascal (2014).Anticancer Active Ingredient Derived from Guiera senegalensis (UBP technology offer sheet).URL:

[2]  Formerly known as the Analgesic Partnership. The Institute’s website is

[3]  A compilation of these names can be found in a 1985 Kew Gardens publication:

[4]  Chalard P (2011). Activit้ antalgique de substances naturelles extraites de plantes utilis้es dans la pharmacop้e Malienne traditionnelle. Auvergne Sciences. 16 November.URL:

[5]  Fiot J et al (2006). Phytochemical and pharmacological study of roots and leavesof Guiera senegalensis J.F. Gmel (Combretaceae). Journal of Ethnopharmacology.30 June. URL:

[6]  Baraya YS et al (2014). Evaluation of Five Selected Traditionally Used Medicinal Plants for Breast Cancer Treatment in Nigeria: A Mini Review. Online International Interdisciplinary Research Journal, May-June 2014.

[7]  Elgazili BEG et al (1994) cited in Osman ME et al (2014) General Phytochemical Screening and Antioxidant Activity of Some Sudanese Medicinal Plants. Journal of Forest Products and Industries. 3(6):292-295 (online).URL:

[8]  Since Guiera is a monotypic genus – a genus with only one recognized species -Hartwell’s text  presumably refers to Guiera senegalensis (sabara). The original text was not available to the author, however, Hartwell is cited on the matter in a book edited by his successors at the US National Cancer Institute’s widely-known cancer drug plant screening program. See: Pinney K et al. The Discovery and Development of Combrestatins in Cragg G et al (2011). Anticancer Agents from Natural Products, Second
Edition.CRC Press.

[9]  The author sent two email messages to Pierre Chalard in February 2015.