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Bioprospecting in Panama

Coral, Coiba and the Next Big Thing

The largest island off the Central American Pacific coast may be hiding big secrets in its reefs, among them, a possible cure for malaria. Coiba, an island 12 miles off the coast of Panama and once a notorious penal colony, is poised on the brink of transition and transformation. The 10-mile wide and 30-mile long island possesses a unique ecology that may host potential drugs for treating numerous ills. The future of Coiba depends on how its resources are managed by the government.

Coiba and its surrounding waters were established as a national park in 1991 but initially this legislation did little to protect the islands 4200 acres (1700 hectares) of coral reef which was endangered due to heavy fishing. The island was almost opened up to developers for the construction of resorts, golf courses and the like in 2002, but these plans were derailed in light of recent discoveries on the reefs of Coiba.

Picture courtesy of the Virtual Terrain Project.

Research yields interesting finds

Coiba has been studied for more than 30 years by scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). Ongoing STRI research has revealed Coiba has a wealth of new species, respecially among its soft corals. In May 2002 alone 36 different species previously unknown to Panama were discovered. Among them, seven were entirely new to the scientific community. This trove of new species makes Coiba and the surrounding region valuable for bioprospecting, which is the search for new chemicals in living things that have medicinal or commercial applications.

Coral has a special affinity for providing medicinally valuable compounds. Sessile intervertebrates — especially soft coral species — typically produce many toxic chemicals to effectively compete for space on the reef and maintain some degree of self-defense. These organisms cannot flee predators, so these toxin-producing abilities are the result of strong evolutionary pressure to become poisonous. For humans however, corals’ poisons may turn out to be our miracle drugs.

In the waters around Coiba, twelve species of sponge have been analyzed and tested for medicinal value. Two of these were found to contain active components used in cough medicine while the International Co-operative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) recently discovered a soft coral species (octocoral) that has powerful anti-malarial properties.

Due to these discoveries and the high odds of discovering even more medicinally viable species, Coiba is now slated to become a protected reserve. Scientists and politicians need look no farther than Eleutherobin to see the potential utility and value of drugs derived from sea life. Eleutherobin, isolated from a marine encrusting gorgonian, behaves very similarly to Taxol, which is one of the most effective FDA-approved anti-cancer agents available for treatment of breast, ovarian and non-small-cell lung carcinomas.

Eleutherobin has the added advantage over Taxol of being water-soluble and possessing the ability to overcome multi-drug resistance. This is one of the most promising new molecules in science.

Promise on land as well

Back on mainland Panama, ICBG is making serious headway in building scientific infrastructure for in-country testing and processing of bioprospected candidates. Dr. Gerwick, a pharmacologist from Oregon State University, has collaborated with a local member of ICBG, Eduardo Ortega, a parasitologist at Panama’s Institute for Advanced Scientific Investigation, to discover that pond scum, or cyanobacteria as it is properly known, contains several important potential drugs.

Initially, the group focused study on treating tropical infections like malaria, but the equipment required to test its discoveries for anti-parasitic activity was difficult to import. Specifically, the standard assay for malaria involved the use of radioactive materials, which Western governments have been hesitant to send over to a poor country with an unstable political past. Circumventing this obstacle, Dr. Ortega invented a new assay that did not involve radioactivity and instead used the powers of fluorescence. The new method worked by tagging a parasite’s DNA with a fluorescent stain. The parasites were then incubated in an appropriate medium, (for malaria, red blood cells), and an extract from cyanobacterium, coral, etc. was added. In the absence of the extract, the parasites grow and the sample increases in fluorescence. But if the extract stops the parasite’s reproduction, or even more encouraging, kills them, the fluorescence subsides. In these instances, the researchers know to continue with their study and testing of such an extract.

Presently, scientists from ICBG are using this method to test their finds for activity against leishmanaisis, malaria and most recently, dengue fever. A promising number of leads has been discovered including one particular cyanobacterium with a very high activity against malaria. Combined with the soft coral discoveries in Coiba, the opportunity to eradicate malaria seems more imminent than ever.

Despite all of these heartening and promising advances in medicinal knowledge, bioprospecting faces challeneges with issues of ownership and ultimate benefit remain. Who really owns the rights to products — and the income they produce — developed from a country’s natural bounty? On the one side, the biodiversity of one country surely belongs to the land it springs from, but on the other side, the laborious and expensive process of transforming a raw resource into a marketable product typically occurs in a wealthy country, like the US. The process of bringing a drug to market costs between 200 and 500 million dollars and can take up to 12 years. And in the end, approximately only one in 5000 drug candidates make it to market. For these reasons, there is a high risk and incidence of exploitation without compensation, especially in poorer countries. Patent law favors protecting the person who distills an idea to an actual, workable practice or product.

Thus bioprospecting is a rather daunting endeavor. In the case of this particular ICBG project, things are simpler since the biodiversity and the research process are both contained within Panama. The team has decided to give at least 50 percent of any profits it receives to environmental trust funds, while the rest will go to the institutions that have provided support to the project, including the University of Panama. Since as of yet no drugs have been successfully developed through the program, there has been no need to direct or wrangle funds. In spite of this, Drs. Gerwick and Ortega perceive the project as a success. The fluorescence test will be included in a drug-discovery kit being created by the National Cancer Institute in the United States and is now used in other developing countries, including Bolivia and Madagascar. ICBG’s projects serve as training grounds for Panamanian scientists, providing unique opportunities for research with cutting edge methods.

Coiba protected

Back on Coiba, a Biological Research Station has been constructed and the park now charges a ten-dollar entrance fee to visitors to help fund park protection and maintenance. ANAM, the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente or National Authority of the Environment, provides guards as impediments to any enterprising locals who may attempt to colonize areas of the island or overzealous fisherman. Currently, there is an assortment of domesticated animals on Coiba — leftover belongings of inmates from the penal colony. Their small numbers do not pose too much of a threat to the island’s native species, but they will probably be removed in the near future.

Coiba is still relatively pristine, with only the penal colony previously occupying the island and its relative isolation from the mainland. There are 108,700 acres (44,000 hectares) of primary forests and 12,400 acres (5000 hectares) of secondary forests. The reefs off Coiba are arguably the most valuable elements of the island and also the most threatened. Biologically, the marine ecosystem has the capacity to regenerate itself, but there has to be a healthy habitat for organisms to live and thrive in. Using satellite images, STRI scientists have discovered red sediment from erosion feathering out from Damas Bay, a product of agricultural waste from the old colony. Although now that the facility is closed, this problem should subside.

Another threat to the reef environment is fishing, both industrial and regional practices damage the ecosystem. Reducing fish populations upsets the balance within the reef ecosystem and anchors and trolling devices damage the coral. In 2001, researchers from STRI and Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment collaborated on a study to assess the impact of nature of illegal fishing activities in the park, the fisherman’s knowledge and attitudes towards the Coiba National Park and develop strategies for incorporating local communities into the design, implementation and management of marine resources. Scientists hope to achieve a compromise that will accommodate both sides while protecting the park.

Coral reef

Dr. Guzman stresses the need for striking a balance in preserving Coiba’s fragile and unique ecosystems and maintaining profitable development. He says, “It’s not about prohibiting–we have to erase that concept from conservationists. It’s about management: what will be done and by whom it is done. It’s obligatory to have a multidisciplinary team working together.” Currently, the organizations involved in Panama’s bioprospecting projects include STRI, Gorgas Laboratories, the University of Panama and various pharmaceutical companies.

The greatest hope for Coiba’s continued preservation is the emergent knowledge and recognition from scientific research that many endemic species will contain life-saving compounds that could be processed into profitable drugs. Showing the Panamanian government that Coiba is more valuable protected for ecological study than developed for tourists, logging and agriculture is essential. The island’s future, as well as that of Panama’s and the medical establishment, depends on how well individuals and industries will respect and protect these rich and remarkable ecosystems. There is life in the coral.


Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

International Cooperative Biodiversity Group, Panama

Albatros media – includes video of Coiba

Project staff

Wiliam Gerwick

Lissy Coley and Tom Kursar, University of Utah

Hector Guzman

This report used information from The Economist, “The scum of the Earth,” Apr 7th 2005; El Panama America, Bottom of the Sea at Coiba Holds Many Surprises June 2nd 2003; and Coiba Panama.

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