Bioprospecting not biopiracy

Putting people first to link health and biodiversity conservation

By training professionals in high-biodiversity regions to advance the drug discovery process in-country, a novel program drives drug discovery costs down as it promotes tropical biodiversity conservation. An international team describes a successful test of the program in Panama in the December, 2006 issue of BioScience.

"Instead of sending samples to the U.S. or Switzerland, we identify natural substances that may control cancer, AIDS, malaria and other tropical diseases here, at the University of Panama," explains Luis Cubilla-Rios, one of the chemists on the project. Over 70 Panamanian students participated during the first seven years of the project, and 22 continue to seek graduate degrees in the sciences.

Phyllis Coley and Tom Kursar, University of Utah, studied basic chemical ecology of plants at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's station on Barro Colorado Island in Panama: "We were alarmed by the lack of conservation strategies that provide immediate benefits for people living in high biodiversity regions," explains Kursar, who sought funding for this project, called the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Agriculture.

"By making it feasible for host country professionals to conduct as much of the drug discovery process as possible in Panama , the ICBG program provides immediate economic and educational benefits," Coley emphasizes.

"Only a small proportion of bioactive substances make it to the product development stage. If that happens, the proceeds come back to Panama…but the success of this project doesn't depend on that happening. Also, research on malaria, leishmaniasis, dengue and Chagas disease is of great national importance, even though treatments for such diseases are unlikely to generate large financial benefits," adds Todd Capson, the in-country program coordinator, who worked closely with Panama's Environment Authority (ANAM), the University of Panama, Gorgas Laboratories and the National Office of Science and Technology (SENACYT) to establish the institutional framework for the project.

Now technology transfer goes from South to North. In addition to describing potential pharmaceutical chemicals, and developing innovative bioassay procedures, local professionals become successful advocates for increased protection for areas such as Coiba National Park, which became a World Heritage Site based on scientific documentation of its marine and terrestrial biodiversity.

Kursar sums up the program this way: "We document biodiversity, provide scientific training and jobs and level the playing field, encouraging the establishment of truly international, multidisciplinary scientific collaborations."

"The ICBG program is an example of the practical application of basic research for human benefit. Ecologists know who eats whom and understand chemical signalling—without them, drug discovery teams would be faced with the difficult task of looking for a needle in a haystack," STRI Director, Ira Rubinoff concludes.

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The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), a unit of the Smithsonian Institution, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, furthers our understanding of tropical nature and its importance to human welfare, trains students to conduct research in the tropics and promotes conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems. www.stri.org


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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