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Drug-Discovery Plan to Tap, and Help, Africa Forests

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 26, 2004
 
The beleaguered rain forests of Madagascar are home to thousands of plants found nowhere else—and perhaps new lifesaving drugs. Could the search for medicinal plants help keep the forests of this African island nation intact?

A team of scientists hope the answer is yes.

"Madagascar is poor according to human-economy criteria, yet extremely rich in unique and endemic biodiversity," said Patricia Wright, an anthropologist and conservation at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. "Is it possible to add to the human economy without depleting the biodiversity riches? We are trying our best to do this."


Wright serves as the executive director of the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments and as a member of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration and Conservation Trust. She is joined on her latest project by Iwao Ojima, a chemist at Stony Brook University, and other international scientists.

The researchers are currently negotiating agreements with traditional healers, village elders, and university and government officials in Madagascar for a multiyear project to conduct drug-discovery research.

The project, known as the Drug Discovery and Biodiversity Program, is based in the tropical rain forests surrounding Ranomafana National Park. The 107,500-acre (43,500-hectare) preserve runs along the eastern edge of Madagascar's high plateau.

The park was created in 1991 after Wright discovered a new species of lemur in the region in 1986.

The park is protected today. But outside its boundaries hundreds of acres of rain forest are burned and destroyed each year to make room for rice farming and corn farming. In the process, habitat for many diverse plant and animal species is lost. The annual net gain to farmers is equivalent to several hundred U.S. dollars in income.

"It doesn't make economic sense," Wright said. "Before these priceless species go extinct, we are hoping to find active compounds in some of the botanicals, which may be used to treat human diseases."

Drug Discovery

Like their Amazonian counterparts, traditional Madagascan healers have a generations-deep knowledge of how the leaves, bark, sap, and berries of local rain forest plants can be used to cure ills ranging from stomach aches and high fevers to coughs and malaria.

"Our strategy is to get all the information from those traditional healers and then look at [it] from a very modern-science point of view," said Ojima, the founding director of the Institute of Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery at Stony Brook University.

Ojima is renowned for his work in the research and development of Taxol. The widely used anticancer drug was derived from the Pacific yew, a tree found in temperate rain forests. (Plants from the same genus have also been used.)

In the Madagascar drug-discovery project, Madagascan scientists will collect and dry specimens of medicinal plants identified by traditional healers. The botanical samples will be given to chemists at Madagascar's University of Antananarivo and the Malagasy Institute for Applied Research. The chemists will extract ingredients and conduct preliminary tests for active compounds.

Information on active compounds will be entered into a shared database, and promising extracts will be sent to researchers at the Institute of Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery on Long Island for further analysis and potential drug development.

Researchers will first focus their efforts on developing drugs based on well-known and widely-used traditional treatments for the common cold and malaria.

"We believe there is a relatively high probability for us to discover an excellent antimalarial drug or its lead compound from our endeavor," Ojima said. (Taxonomists have identified more than 300 plant species that traditional healers say are effective against the disease.)

Ojima is also optimistic that the project will discover compounds that can be developed into new drugs that fight AIDS, cancer, bacteria, and asthma.

Compensation

The chemist concedes that creating blockbuster drugs like Taxol from botanical compounds is rare. But "when it happens, the impact is huge," he said.

Stony Brook researchers are currently negotiating agreements with Madagascan associates to protect their intellectual property rights and to guarantee they share in any profits derived from the project.

"Our long-term relationship with local villagers has been built on a foundation of mutual respect and trust, and we are being meticulously careful to ensure this project reinforces that relationship," Wright said.

Madagascan scientists are being trained to actively participate in the drug discovery program. The team is also working with locals to develop project-related enterprises to provide short-term economic benefits, such as establishing plant nurseries where medicinal plants can be grown for market and tourism, Wright said.

The University of Antananarivo has already received substantial funding to set up a laboratory for this project, according to Ojima.

Meanwhile contracts for intellectual property rights management are expected to be in place this month, Wright said. "Then the project will be on the ground."

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