The impending marriage between biodiversity and biotechnology presents highly fertile grounds for collaboration between developing and industrialized countries in the global efforts to find cures for debilitating diseases such as cancer, and recalcitrant infectious diseases. Rapid advances in biomedical research are revealing insights into the biochemical mechanisms of diseases, exposing new targets for molecular intervention through drug discovery. The capabilities afforded by recombinant DNA technology to mass produce rare cellular enzymes, receptors, hormones, signal proteins and other cell-function modulators have led to proliferation of in vifro bioassays, for use in drug screening, which closely simulate disease targets. The incorporation of automation and robotics technologies has transformed these bioassay systems into high throughput screens capable of handling thousands of compounds daily. These biotechnical advances set the stage for the search for new breakthrough drugs against diseases. The supply of novel, biologically active chemical compounds to match the formidable capabilities of high throughput screens has now become the limiting step in the drug discovery process. One of the proven sources of bioactive compounds for pharmaceuticals is the large variety of natural products produced by microorganisms and plants. For instance, antibiotics, produced as secondary metabolites of actinomyces and fungi, now constitute a US!$l6 billion/ year segment of the worldwide pharmaceutical industry. Indeed, as much as a quarter of all prescription drugs are believed to be derived from plants as direct extracts, chemically modified derivatives or templates for producing synthetic analogues. Even then, the success of current natural products represents only the tip of the iceberg. The vast repertoire of nature’s biochemical treasures remains untapped. The Earth’s biodiversity comprises more than half a million plant speThe author is the President, 6ioResources International Inc., P.O. Box 6595, Somerset, NJ O&375, USA; fax: gO8 545 06S3. BioResources lnternational seeks to commercialize bioactive products from tropical plants. The present comments are based on the author’s efforts in promoting collaborative ventures in biodiversity prospecting in West Africa, @ 1995 Rapid Communications
ties, 1.5 million fungal species and numerous bacterial species. Most of these species are concentrated in the humid tropics. Less than 1% of this rich biodiversity has been screened for useful bioactive compounds. The current situation presents unique opportunities for the biodiversity-rich countries of the tropics to exploit their biological resources in a win-win partnership with the biotechnology-rich countries. The Biodiversity Treaty adopted at the United Nations’ (UN) Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 provides a comprehensive framework for international co-operation in the sustainable and equitable use of biodiversity. The most contentious issues of the Treaty relate to biodiversity prospecting for pharmaceutical and biotechnological product development and the nature of compensation for the use of biodiversity-specifically intellectual-property controls over biotechnology transfer to developing countries. It is now time for developing countries to seize the opportunities offered by technological changes to become critical players in the next wave of biotechnological and pharmaceutical products. The knowledge-base and infrastructures for biodiversity prospecting in developing countries must be strengthened. Forest reserves, national parks, botanical gardens, herbaria, plant and microbial culture collections must be modernized, with computer cataloguing of taxonomic information where appropriate. Traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants must be appreciated and legally protected as intellectual property. In fact, Z=70% of the population in developing countries still depend on traditional medicines derived from medicinal plants to meet their health-care needs. In some countries, considerable scientific research has already been conducted to validate the efficacy of traditional medicines and characterize the active ingredients in medicinal plants. The application of this wealth of ethnobotanical and ethnopharmacological knowledge has been shown to significantly enhance hit rates for obtaining lead compounds in drug-screening programs. Developing countries must also build competence in
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K. Gbewonyo core technologies for biodiversity prospecting, including field collection, taxonomy, extract preparation, tissue culture, bioassay development, drug screening, compound isolation and chemical structure determination. Actually, some of these technologies, such as extract preparation, are inherently labour-intensive and more economical to locate in developing countries. Given the appropriate scientific infrastructure, some developing countries may seek to move up the value-chain in biodiversity prospecting to screen for lead compounds and undertake prechnical development themselves. Success in these activities will enhance their bargaining power in collaborative drug-development ventures with pharmaceutical companies in the industrialized countries. The desperate need for new drugs against parasitic diseases endemic to tropical countries offers a special niche for application of biodiversity prospecting. Home-grown solutions need to be found to this and other neglected health-care needs. Some developing countries have already taken the initiative to formulate progressive national policies to attract biodiversity-prospecting ventures with industrialized countries. Costa Rica has established a National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), a non-profit organization charged with surveying and documenting the country’s rich biodiversity resources. INBio recently entered into a wide-ranging biodiversity prospecting contract with the Merck pharmaceutical company in the USA, for the supply of plant, insect and microbial extracts for natural product screening. This innovative agreement includes a substantial upfront payment to Costa Rica, royalty payments on the future sales of any drugs discovered in the programme and training of Costa Rican scientists in drug-discovery technologies at Merck. Costa Rica has already allocated a significant
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portion of the current and future revenues from the programme to support conservation of biodiversity. As the field evolves there will surely be other interesting models for collaborative ventures in biodiversity prospecting. The challenge is for developing countries to seriously target biodiversity prospecting as an economic opportunity for scientific and industrial growth and enact policies and legislation at the national level to implement the UN Biodiversity Treaty. This would provide a legitimate climate to attract biodiversity prospectors from industrialized countries. Developing countries must also be aware of the altemative strategies that are emerging to meet the demand for chemical diversity created by high throughput screening, particularly combinatorial library technology. This technology permits billions of chemically diverse molecules to be synthesized in test tubes by random polymerization of precursor cocktails such as mixtures of amino acids. The increasing sophistication in combinatorial chemistry poses a competitive threat to biodiversity prospecting as the source of lead compounds for the next generation of ‘small molecule’ drugs. It is therefore necessary for developing countries to pursue a proactive strategy in soliciting client companies for collaborative ventures in biodiversity prospecting. One way to initiate collaborations is through professional contacts at international scientific ,meetings. These could be followed by exchange visits between developing country scientists and their prospective industrial collaborators who could then negotiate mutually agreeable terms for collaboration. This is an exciting time for biodiversity prospecting and all the chips are in place for developing countries to benefit from their biological resources and play a major role in the biotechnology revolution.