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Bioprospecting links health and biodiversity conservation in Panama

Bioprospecting links health and biodiversity conservation in Panama

Bioprospecting links health and biodiversity conservation in Panama
December 7, 2006

The difference between bioprospecting and biopiracy as at times controversial, but a program run by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) suggests that training professionals in high-biodiversity regions can help bring benefits to local populations while promoting biodiversity conservation. The program, called the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG), is profiled in the December issue of the journal BioScience.

Researchers say the program reduces drug discovery costs and promotes two-way technology transfer between industrialized and developing countries.

“Instead of sending samples to the U.S. or Switzerland, we identify natural substances that may control cancer, AIDS, malaria and other tropical diseases here, at the University of Panama,” explained Luis Cubilla-Rios, one of the Panamanian chemists on the project.

Unlike biopiracy, under which one side gets the lions’ share of benefits without fair compensation, both sides benefit from collaboration through bioprospecting.

Southeastern section of Coiba off the coast of Panama. Image courtsy of Google Earth.

“We were alarmed by the lack of conservation strategies that provide immediate benefits for people living in high biodiversity regions,” said Tom Kursar, an associate professor of biology at the University of Utah and laed author of the paper.

“By making it feasible for host country professionals to conduct as much of the drug discovery process as possible in Panama , the ICBG program provides immediate economic and educational benefits,” explained Phyllis Coley, co-author of the paper and a biology professor at the University of Utah.

“Only a small proportion of bioactive substances make it to the product development stage. If that happens, the proceeds come back to Panama…but the success of this project doesn’t depend on that happening. Also, research on malaria, leishmaniasis, dengue and Chagas disease is of great national importance, even though treatments for such diseases are unlikely to generate large financial benefits,” added Todd Capson, the in-country program coordinator of ICBG.

In addition to describing potential pharmaceutical chemicals, the program helps train a new generation of researcher s in Panama: “over 70 Panamanian students participated during the first seven years of the project, and 22 continue to seek graduate degrees in the sciences,” states a media release from STRI. Further, locals become advocates for biodiversity preservation like ht recent creation of Coiba National Park, which was declared a World Heritage Site following on scientific documentation of its marine and terrestrial biological treasures.

“The ICBG program is an example of the practical application of basic research for human benefit. Ecologists know who eats whom and understand chemical signalling—without them, drug discovery teams would be faced with the difficult task of looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Ira Rubinoff STRI Director.

Related article

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.

This article is based on a news release from STRI

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