Jan. 12, 1999 With the help of a new grant, the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Pharmacy is implementing a new approach to drug discovery that fosters environmental protection and economic development in developing countries.
The college's Program for Collaborative Research in the Pharmaceutical Sciences has been recognized for its efforts with a $2.4-million International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups grant from the Fogarty International Center, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and Department of Agriculture.
"In North America and Europe, we are poor in biodiversity but rich in biotechnology. The opposite is true in many developing nations. These countries own most of the world's biodiversity, but their people are poor, and they lack the resources to conduct research as we do," said Djaja Soejarto, principal investigator and professor of pharmacognosy. "We believe that we may discover one or more compounds that could become drugs."
This new funding enables Soejarto and his team to expand their work in Vietnam and Laos. The UIC team is collaborating with researchers, tribal groups and healers in these countries, and with its United Kingdom-based industrial partner Glaxo Wellcome Research and Development, to achieve these primary goals:
· Collect plants and inventory tropical forest plant diversity · Document medicinal plant use by tribal groups · Discover biologically active molecules from plants with the potential to lead to the development of drugs to treat malaria, viral diseases including AIDS, and central nervous system-related diseases including Alzheimer's and epilepsy · Improve living standards in the tribal communities studied through community education and large-scale production of plants that have economic potential as drugs
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty negotiated in 1992, asserts that every country has sovereign rights over all plant, animal and other natural resources found within its territory, and should be compensated accordingly by researchers, industry and other entities that use these resources. The treaty also calls on biotechnologically rich nations and research entities to cooperate with developing nations in assessing the value of their biodiversity and, in the process, transfer technology to these nations.
Though the U.S. Congress voted against ratification of the treaty, several federal agencies joined to support the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups program. Its goals are similar to those of the UN treaty. UIC is one of six institutions to receive funding in the second generation of the program.
Through his international biodiversity prospecting activities and cooperative relationships with governments and non-government organizations, Soejarto has become an expert in negotiating biological and intellectual property rights and benefits-sharing agreements from plant-based drug discovery programs. He has been the principal investigator of three major contracts from the National Cancer Institute to explore tropical rain forests of Southeast Asia and collect plants for anti-cancer and anti-AIDS screening by the institute. Soejarto also has been the principal investigator of a worldwide plant-acquisition program funded by Glaxo Wellcome Research and Development. He is a co-principal investigator of a project to search for biologically active compounds from plants of the Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam and a co-principal investigator of a project to help the Philippine government formulate a policy on forest conservation. The MacArthur Foundation is funding both of these projects.
Soejarto and his team are concentrating their efforts in Vietnam and Laos, in part because of long-standing relationships that exist among UIC College of Pharmacy researchers and scientists at research institutions in these countries. Additionally, the rich biodiversity of these countries, as in many poor nations, is under threat from deforestation.
Vietnam and Laos are among the 50 most biodiverse countries. Both countries, however, are among the least developed nations in the world. Vietnam's gross domestic product is about $1,140 per person and Laos' gross domestic product is about $850 per person.
The forests in these nations are being cleared to make way for agriculture. Experts estimate that the rate of deforestation in Vietnam is 600 square kilometers per year, and in Laos, 1,000 square kilometers per year.
"Whatever tropical biodiversity these two countries still have must be protected and investigated for its economic potential," Soejarto said. "A demonstration that these forests could provide new medicines and generate revenue for the country would help strengthen the cause of protecting these highly diverse ecosystems."
Soejarto will be traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Laos and Vietnam for the duration of the project.
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