Intellectual Property Rights

Research Areas


Why do Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) matter in traditional medicine research?


Research should benefit everyone, including the owners of traditional knowledge. Unfortunately, there are many cases where new medicines have been developed without benefiting the people who shared their traditional knowledge with scientists.


Here is one example. 


Hoodia gordonii is a cactus-like plant that grows primarily in the semi-deserts of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. The San People have lived in the Kalahari desert for around 60 thousand years and have used the bitter flesh of Hoodia as a hunger suppressant while on long trips across the hot, arid & vast Kalahari. 


The traditionally used appetite-suppressant property of Hoodia was brought to the attention of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) who patented its application. CSIR licensed the Hoodia patent to Phytopharm, a UK-based herbal company, who then tested, developed and commercialized the new patent product.



Pfizer then purchased the worldwide marketing rights from Phytopharm for a reported $32 million to develop and market diet pills based on the traditionally known hunger suppressant properties of Hoodia.


Phytopharm had earned over $10 million while the San were still waiting for benefits

Mental Wellness

GIFTS of Health has partnered with the Mental Wellness Initiative of the Global Wellness Institute which aims to understand those pathways that help people stay well and thrive mentally as well as physically. The lens of mental wellness extends from the very inner aspects of individual experience through to the influence and condition of what is sometimes called the ‘social mind’ – i.e. the mental condition of the surrounding society and its effect on &/or contribution to mental wellness.


The GWI's Mental Wellness Initiative will collect and share evidence on a wide range of mental, nutritional and physical modalities that support lifelong growth of mental wellbeing and happiness, creativity and generativity, wisdom, inner peace and transcendence.


Herbal medicines have long been a mainstay of the home health practices of the majority of the world’s population. In the industrialized world, studies have found that herbal and other forms of complementary medicine use increases as people become more affluent. At the same time, in the developing world, traditional medicine, with its strong herbal base, has continued to be the first resort to healthcare of the majority of poor and rural populations. 


Medicinal plants - the source of this – are increasingly threatened by overharvesting from wild sources, contamination by agricultural spraying and chemical fertilizers, loss of raw material and plant contamination due to poor storage facilities, and excessive profit taking by middle men who buy from plant collectors at low rates and sell on in lengthy trade chains at increasingly higher prices. GIFTS has participated in a number of initiatives to create accountability and transparency in this process and was a contributor to Traditional Medicine section in the 2016 WHO/CBD publication on Biodiversity and Health.


The high cost and unavailability of anti-HIV drugs to people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in the developing world leads many to turn to traditional medicine to manage HIV-related illness. In addition to their high cost, antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) require the support of expensive medical infrastructure not available in many developing countries and rarely available in rural areas of any developing country.


GIFTS has worked with NGO’s, researchers and government agencies in Africa and parts of Asia to develop research into patterns of utilization of traditional medicine among PLWHA and also documenting reports of beneficial outcomes from traditional treatments as a first step towards their clinical evaluation.


One of the most effective antimalarial drugs - artemisinin - originates from the Artemisia annua plant, long used in Chinese medicine to control fevers. And the original class of antimalarials, quinine an alkaloid from the bark of the Peruvian tree Chincona officionalis, served as the primary recourse for malaria treatment for more than a century until being replaced by a range of synthetic drugs. 


RITAM - the Research Initiative on Traditional Antimalarial Methods – was co-founded by WHO’s Tropical Disease Research division (TDR) and The Global Initiative for Traditional Systems (GIFTS) of Health, University of Oxford, UK, at a meeting of experts in Moshi, Tanzania in 1999.  Four specialist groups were established: policy, advocacy and funding; preclinical studies; clinical development; and repellence and vector control. RITAM has since produced numerous research publications, a book “Traditional Medicinal Plants and Malaria”, and a special issue of the Malaria Journal, as well as contributing to WHO’s malaria drug discovery research.  

Non-Communicable Diseases

According to World Health Organization data, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), principally cardiovascular, diabetes, cancers, and chronic respiratory diseases, are now responsible for the majority of deaths globally.  These diseases pose a threat to the nations of the world and have the potential to disrupt global economies. NCD deaths are projected to continue to rise worldwide, and the greatest increase is expected to occur in low- and middle-income regions. The rise of NCDs has been driven by primarily four major risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol and unhealthy diets.


Recently, GIFTS team members have been working on traditional systems of nutrition as sources of culturally relevant diets to combat the global rise of NCDs. Partnerships include with the UN University’s Regional Centres of Excellence (RCE) program on Asian traditional diets; contribution to the book “Connecting Indian Wisdom and Western Science: Plant Usage for Nutrition and Health, 2015”; a 2015 Lancet communication on Asian traditional diets in combatting NCDs; presentations at conferences in Asia on the same topic.