Spectrum Volume 21 Issue 11 - November 5, 1998
What do Taxol(TM), morphine, and quinine all have in common? They are all important drugs, and they were all isolated from plants.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has recently awarded Virginia Tech a five-year cooperative grant for support of drug discovery and bio-diversity conservation in Madagascar and Suriname, with first-year funding of $612,000.
Taxol is the world's best selling anti-cancer drug, morphine is an important pain reliever for severe pain, and quinine is an anti-malarial drug. Drug researchers found Taxol and other new natural-product drugs by testing thousands of plants for biological activity, and then isolating the medicinally active compounds from these extracts that showed activity.
The problem with this approach, according to David Kingston, professor of chemistry, is that it requires access to thousands of plants; and most of the world's plant bio-diversity is contained in its fast-disappearing tropical rain forests. What is needed is a way to develop new drugs from the rain forest while contributing to the economic health of the country in which the forest is located. This is the idea behind the work at Virginia Tech that has just received renewed support from the NIH.
The International Cooperative Biodiversity Group, which is doing the work, is directed by Kingston and includes six additional collaborators on three continents. Collaborators in the United States are Conservation International (CI), a Washington, D.C.-based conservation and development organization; Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) of St. Louis, one of the world's major botanical gardens; Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute in Wallingford, Conn; and Dow Agrosciences in Indianapolis. Work in Suriname is in collaboration with the Suriname drug company BGVS, and work in Madagascar is in collaboration with CNARP, a Madagascan research center.
In the project, plants will be collected in Madagascar and in Suriname by both Missouri Botanical Garden and Conservation International. BGVS and CNARP will prepare extracts, and Bristol-Myers Squibb and Dow Agrosciences will test the extracts for activity. Virginia Tech and Bristol-Myers Squib will perform isolation of bio-active compounds, and compounds with sufficient activity will be developed as drugs by Bristol-Myers Squibb or as agrochemicals by Dow Agrosciences.
In addition to the drug-discovery aspects of the work, Virginia Tech, MBG, and CI will provide research training to Surinamese and Madagascan nationals. CI will carry out small-scale economic-development projects, and MBG will conduct bio-diversity surveys of each country.
"Our overall aim," Kingston said, "is to find new drugs to benefit mankind, but also to provide specific benefits to Suriname and Madagascar through our work. If we find a drug, the host country will receive royalties on the drug sales, but we have also obtained commitments from both Bristol-Myers Squibb and Dow Agrosciences to provide critical funding for in-country development efforts. We see this project as a win-win situation; it benefits the people of the U.S.A., but it also provides benefits to Suriname and Madagascar."