Rain Forest Plan Blends Drug Research, Conservation

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 7, 2003
A husband and wife biologist team has proposed a plan they say will be
more effective in identifying medical cures found in tropical rain
forest plants and animals.

The centerpiece of the program developed by the professors at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and some 40 Panamanian scientists and students, calls for the developed world to redirect a significant portion of the U.S. $23 billion to $47 billion it spends each year on drug research and development to developing countries where rain forests grow.

The plan is an outgrowth of a five-year, three-million-dollar (U.S.) study awarded by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama, with money from the United States' National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The researchers outline their proposal, along with a drug discovery technique they say is more efficient, in the October issue of the Ecological Society of America journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

"The idea of doing research in source countries is what we consider a good solution that hasn't really been worked on or proposed," said Thomas Kursar, who led the study with his wife, Phyllis Coley.

In an accompanying perspective article, Jeffrey McNeely, a chief scientist with the World Conservation Union, the Switzerland-based conservation and scientific organization, said the proposal "is an excellent first step."

To further aid rain forest conservation while prospecting for medical cures, McNeely said other necessary steps include: local scholarships for graduate students, recognizing and compensating local people for sharing their traditional knowledge, and direct investment in conservation by pharmaceutical firms.

Spend Locally

Even if a drug never makes it to market, money spent to build new laboratories in developing countries and to hire and train local scientists to find, study, and test rain forest plants and animals for medical cures brings immediate value to the rain forest, the researchers said.

"The probability of a drug making it all the way through the drug discovery process is … practically zero," said Coley.

Both conservationists and the drug industry have touted "bioprospecting"—exploring wild plants and animals for commercially valuable products—as a viable means to protect rain forests since royalty monies from the drugs discovered could be used to conserve land. But without successful drugs, no royalties are available.

With the prospect of such conservation payoffs hinging on biomedical breakthroughs that are distant at best and uncertain at worst, the researchers say a different method to link rain forest pharmaceutical research and conservation is needed.

"Even if they were to get a royalty, the timescale is too long for it to be of benefit to conservation," said Coley. "They will get a royalty seven to eight years after the plant is collected. The threats to rain forests are happening so fast we don't have that kind of timeline to wait around."

The researchers' proposal circumvents the need for a royalty check to conserve the rain forest. In their current efforts in Panama, their project contributes about U.S. $600,000 per year to the Panamanian economy in jobs and infrastructure. In a country of three million people, such a contribution helps cultivate rain forest stakeholders, said Kursar.

"We are important users of biodiversity, and we are very well known in Panama," he said. In the five years since their project started in Panama, the researchers say they have become consultants to the local government on conservation matters.

Political Quagmire

In his commentary, McNeeley explains how a perception of "bio-piracy" in developing nations has bogged down advances in bioprospecting.

The issue was highlighted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the Convention on Biological Diversity was drafted. At negotiations for the treaty, developing nations argued that they were not getting a fair share of profits from drug companies that launched successful drugs derived from rain forest plants.

"An oft-told tale relates how a foreign drug company earned [U.S.] $200 million in profits from Madagascar's rosy periwinkle, which produced vincristine and vinblastine, important drugs in the fight against childhood leukemia, while Madagascar got nothing in return," writes McNeely.

While large sums can be made from drugs derived from rain forest bioprospecting, developing nations often failed to realize any direct financial benefits, according to McNeely. As a result, the convention, which has been ratified by 187 counties, but not the United States, ensures profit sharing from rain forest drugs between developed and developing nations.

"Unfortunately, the road to this noble goal has been a bit rocky," writes McNeely. "Ironically and perversely, the lure of a green gold rush in the tropical forest has led to a virtual standstill in access to genetic resources in some countries."

Coley, Kursar, and colleagues say their proposal jumpstarts this process by allowing developing countries to participate in the lucrative and educational research and development phase of bioprospecting.

Jeff Truitt, a spokesman for the Pharmaceuticals Research and Manufacturers of America, a Washington D.C.-based trade group, said his association does not comment on product opportunities or research techniques.

Coley and Kursar say if their model is adopted, it would bring immediate benefits to conservation.

"Protecting biodiversity is a world heritage value, and it's important to have that value come from within the host country," said Kursar.

Finding Drugs

Another step in the bioprospecting process refined by Coley, Kursar, and colleagues is determining which of the hundreds of thousands of plants in a rain forest to test to see if they harbor a cure for a human disease.

"Traditionally, people hire a botanist to go out and collect whatever they can find," said Coley. "When you walk through the forest what you see mostly is mature leaves."

Mature leaves, however, have built up defenses to protect them from getting eaten by grazing animals. Defenses include tough surfaces and low nutritional value. Young leaves, by contrast, are growing and thus cannot afford to be tough. They defend themselves by producing chemicals.

Through experimentation, the researchers learned that the chemicals in the young leaves are the same sorts of chemicals that lead to the most effective drugs. As the leaves mature, these beneficial chemicals disappear.

Since bioprospectors have often focused their efforts on mature leaves, they have missed these compounds, the researchers say. "We used basic biological insight to design a collection strategy that has increased the hit rate substantially," said Coley.

To date, the researchers in Panama have found plants that may be effective in combating malaria and leishmaniasis, a potentially fatal disease caused by parasites transmitted by sand fly bites.

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