Utah researchers hope hunt for medicinal drugs helps save Papua New Guinea rainforests

02/03/04

Economic development is also goal of ICBG Grant

SALT LAKE CITY--Two University of Utah College of Pharmacy faculty members will lead an international effort to search the diverse plant life of Papua New Guinea for drugs to treat tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases.

Funded by a $4 million International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) grant, the project also aims to encourage the people of that island-nation to conserve the fast-disappearing rainforest and help spur growth of a cottage industry in which plants are used to make medicinal drugs.

"The objective is to use drug discovery as a means of providing economic development and conservation of biodiversity," said Louis R. Barrows, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology, and the project's principal investigator.

Chris M. Ireland, Ph.D., professor and chair of medicinal chemistry, will serve as co-principal investigator. Other researchers come from the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; London, England; Wyeth Research; and the University of Papua New Guinea. The grant provides about $800,000 annually for five years and is supported by the Fogarty International Center and several other institutions within the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Papua New Guinea occupies half of the island of New Guinea north of Australia in the South Pacific Ocean. Lush in rainforests, the country totals only 1 percent of the world's land, but harbors an estimated 5 percent of plant and animal species. "It's an amazing place," Ireland said.

But logging and mining are destroying the rainforest at an alarming rate, and the country faces serious health issues, such as tuberculosis and malaria. The World Health Organization also considers Papua New Guinea at risk for an "explosion" of AIDS, according to Barrows.

At the urging of the National Cancer Institute, officials from the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) visited several U.S. academic institutions to help find a way to conserve natural resources while confronting the country's health issues. The U of U already had a connection to UPNG through the U School of Medicine's Physician Assistant Program, which sends students to Papua New Guinea as part of their education. After meeting Barrows and Ireland, the UPNG vice chancellor, medical school dean, and a professor of pharmacology decided the U would make a good research partner and the grant was put together.

The grant is divided into five associate programs that include assessing the diversity of plants; building a database of information; conducting two phases of drug discovery; and chemistry. Barrows will lead one phase of drug discovery, screening plant extracts for activity against tuberculosis, HIV, malaria, and cancer (with the help of J. Jensen, Ph.D., professor of microbiology at Brigham Young University). Ireland will direct the chemistry program, which will include preparing extracts from plants and traditional medicines used for generations by the people of Papua New Guinea. Wyeth Research will contribute with a strong microbial discovery and drug development program.

Part of the grant, $100,000, has been used to build a pharmacology laboratory at the University of Papua New Guinea. As compounds are discovered from plants, a cottage industry may be jump-started. Barrows and Ireland hope that as the people of Papua New Guinea see the economic value of those plants, they'll realize that conserving those resources will help them earn a livelihood.

"Based on the diversity of plant species there, chances are good that we'll find compounds active against tuberculosis and HIV," Ireland said. But even in the best case, it is likely that new drugs can't be tested in people sooner than five years.

When the project is under way, students and physicians from Papua New Guinea will come to the U of U to take advantage of the laboratories and sophisticated equipment, as well as for training.

Along with Barrows and Ireland, researchers involved in the project include:

  • Professor Teatulohi Matainaho, head of Pharmacology Discipline at the University of Papua New Guinea School of Medicine;
  • Scott Miller, acting chairman of the Department of Systematic Biology, National Museum History, Smithsonian Institution;
  • Guy Carter, assistant vice president for chemical sciences and screening at Wyeth Research.

Barrows and Ireland expect to spend up to one month a year in Papua New Guinea during the project.

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