The country that produced such oddities as the planet’s only egg-laying, duck billed, mammal could also hold the secret to curing cancer, researchers believe. Home to the world’s weirdest, wildest plants and animals, Australia's little-understood outback is now at the centre of an A$100 million project to reveal untapped sources of drug compounds from natural products.
Project leader Professor Ron Quinn of Eskitis Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies at Australia’s Griffith University, Queensland said Australia’s bizarre flora and fauna had evolved in isolation from the world for millennia, creating a unique biodiversity hot-spot.
In Boston this week for the BIO 2007 global biotech conference, Professor Quinn said the project had already yielded results, identifying several promising compounds now undergoing further trials.
“Since 1993, the Institute has built a collection containing over 300,000 natural products isolated from a collection of over 35,000 samples of plants and marine invertebrates collected from mega-diverse areas of tropical Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef, Tasmania, Papua New Guinea and China,” he said. “Fourteen years later, this work has discovered more than 40 plants and 1500 marine animals previously unknown to science.”
“These could hold the key to discovering medicines to battle the 21st Century’s most devastating diseases: cancer; cardiovascular disease; respiratory disease; and illnesses of the central nervous system.”
Professor Quinn said naturally-occurring biological products were a better ‘fit’ with biology of the human body than many synthetic substances, and were still the main medicines used by 80 per cent of the world's population. "Many of the world’s leading drugs are natural product derived. The cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin (AltocorTM) was derived from a fungus. The next generation drug atorvastatin (LipitorTM) is the world’s largest selling drug and is synthesised in a lab.
“Another example is the breast cancer drug paclitaxel (TaxolTM), which was derived from the stripped bark of the Pacific Yew tree. “Often a combination of herbs or foods has been used for centuries in folk medicine and is known to be effective, but the actual therapeutic ingredient is unknown. Our goal is to identify and isolate exactly what the active ingredient in these medicines are, and if possible synthesise it to create better drugs.”
The Natural Product Discovery program and Eskitis Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies have been supported by Queensland State Government funding totalling more than A$15m.
Materials provided by Griffith University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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