Info Service on Intellectual Property Issues (Sept14/02)
Japanese Universities Patent Potent Painkilling Drugs Based on Southeast Asian Traditional Knowledge and Plants
By Edward Hammond (email@example.com)
Japanese scientists have patented pain-killing drugs from kratom (Mitragyna speciosa), a well-known Southeast Asian medicinal plant. According to the researchers, from Chiba National University and Josai University, the kratom painkillers act like opium-derived analgesics (such as morphine) and are especially useful because they do not have some of the undesirable side effects of opiates. Patents have been issued in Japan and the United States, and patent applications may be pending elsewhere.
Kratom (Thai) or ketum (Malay) is a well-known plant native to Thailand, Malaysia, parts of Indonesia and the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. Kratom has long had an important place in Southeast Asian traditional medicine. It is botanically related to coffee, but has stronger effects on its users. Because kratom can be abused as a recreational drug, its use is banned in many places.
In Southeast Asian traditional medicine, different preparations of kratom are used in wound dressings, to treat the effects of fever, as a sedative, and as a substitute for opium in treatment of addicts.  Kratom leaves are also traditionally chewed or made into tea in areas of the Malaysian peninsula, although legal prohibitions now limit this practice.
the early 2000s, Japanese researchers began analyzing compounds extracted
from kratom as part of a program to assess medicinal plants. They
identified one kratom compound, 7-hydroxymitragynine, as having particularly
potent painkilling effects – considerably stronger, in fact, than
morphine in animal experiments.
National University and Josai University have now obtained three patents
on kratom-derived drugs: US patent 8247428, issued 21 August 2012,
Japanese patent 5308352, issued 27 May 2013,
and US patent 86480090, issued 11 February 2014.
These patents do not appear to have entered into a regional/national
phase in Europe, but may be pending or issued in other jurisdictions,
whose data is not available online.
There can be no question that traditional medicinal use of kratom very strongly anticipates the Japanese universities’ claims. Traditional use in wound dressings clearly suggests painkilling properties, as does kratom’s use to treat fevers and as a sedative. And even more particularly, its traditional use as an opium substitute directly suggests kratom’s activity on opioid receptors, the same property of the compounds patented by Chiba and Josai.
These well-documented traditional medicinal uses of kratom call into question the degree of actual innovation contained in the Japanese work, as traditional knowledge guided the researchers to both kratom’s pain killing effects and indicated the specific mode of action of the patented compounds.
National and Josai Universities are both located in the Tokyo metropolitan
area. Whereas Chiba is a semi-governmental national university, Josai
is a smaller private entity. With Japanese government support, the
team of researchers that identified 7-hydroxymitragynine and then
patented its derivatives is actively developing the compounds. One
of the kratom-based drugs has been assigned an experimental drug name,
MGM-16, and is being tested in animals.
 Ahmad K and Z Aziz (2012). Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 141, 446–450.
 USDA (2014). Duke's Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. URL: http://www.ars-grin.gov/cgi-bin/npgs/html/queries.pl
 Matsumoto K et al (2004). Life Sciences 74:2143-2155.
 Matsumoto K et al (2014). J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 348(3):383-92.
 Chiba University (2010). The Chiba University International Collaborative Research, p. 44.