World Intellectual Property Organization

Technology Focus: Traditional Medicine



Background Information: Traditional Medical Knowledge and the International Patent System

The impact of diverse trends - developments in medical biotechnology, growing consumer interest in traditional medical knowledge, and the globalisation and broader user base of the patent system – means that patent documents increasingly refer to or claim traditional medical knowledge and related genetic resources, such as medicinal plants. This practice has been the subject of considerable debate and has precipitated proposals for reform of the patent system.

But this development has also provoked interest in improving the use of patent information to monitor and illuminate the actual nature of patents that use and refer to traditional medical knowledge and related genetic resources.

Responding to this interest, an important practical reform in the international patent system came into effect on January 1, 2006, when the current, eighth, edition of the International Patent Classification (IPC) entered into force. The IPC, administered by WIPO, is the international standard for classifying patent documents and related documentation according to its technological subject.

In the light of concerns that the classification did not take sufficient account of traditional knowledge, particularly traditional medicine based on natural products, the IPC reform introduced a new main group (a certain level in the classification), and some 200 sub groups to enable better access to information about patents in this area.

This new main group, A61K-36, covers medicinal preparations of undetermined constitution containing material from algae, lichens, fungi or plants, or derivatives thereof, e.g. traditional herbal medicines. The sub groups break this general classification down according to specific plant matter used in the claimed invention.

The PATENTSCOPE - Technology Focus service will enable you to search quickly for certain widely used medicinal plants such as:

  • Araliaceae (Ginseng family), e.g. ivy, aralia, schefflera or tetrapanax
  • Clusiaceae, Hypericaceae or Guttiferae (Hypericum or Mangosteen family), e.g. common St. Johnswort
  • Curcuma, e.g. common turmeric, East Indian arrowroot or mango ginger
  • Ginkgophyta, e.g. Ginkgoaceae (Ginkgo family)
  • Panax (ginseng)
  • Solanaceae (Potato family), e.g. tobacco, nightshade, tomato, belladonna, capsicum or jimsonweed
  • Zingiber, e.g. garden ginger

Explore WIPO