Central America: Young Leaf forest medicines as relates to bioprospecting agreements

As much as half the dry weight of young leaves, which have yet to
acquire the toughness and bitterness that defend mature leaves, is
comprised of hundreds of alkaloids and other chemicals that are not
known to science. This insight launched the husband-wife team of
University of Utah professors on a quest to find new medicines to
fight devastating human diseases, like cancer, HIV and malaria.

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Their work, sponsored by the Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical
Research Institute, has helped open Central America’s political
leadership to the economic bounty that could be reaped by leaving
tropical forests standing, Coley told Salt Lake City business leaders
Wednesday. “One approach to biodiversity is to use it or lose it,” she
said. Coley and Kursar’s research, funded by a consortium of federal
agencies led by the National Institutes of Health, promotes
“bioprospecting,” lauded as a way to provide an economic rationale for
conserving imperiled habitats, while advancing medicine.

“The plants and animals found in tropical forests and coral reefs have developed a remarkable array of chemical defences, and these can provide
significant insights into new pharmaceuticals,” said Jeff McNeely,  chief scientist for the International Union for Conservation of  Nature, in an e-mail. “Further, the harvesting of these compounds does not necessarily require large-scale collection of specimens.” Half of new medicines are derived from natural sources, Coley said, pointing to quinine’s role in treating malaria, willows for creating aspirin, and a Madagascar species of periwinkle that yielded drugs for childhood leukemia. However, it was Eli Lilly’s exploitation of this periwinkle that gave bioprospecting a black eye several years ago when the pharmaceutical giant failed to divert any of the millions it reaped back to the source nation.

Coley avoids the “biopiracy” tag by arranging agreements between her funders and Panamanian hosts to ensure that all economic benefits go to the isthmus nation bridging Central and South America. The research itself presents a huge opportunity for developing nations. The pharmaceutical industry spends $43 billion a year on research and development, while governments and non-profits spends about as much. “Why don’t biodiversity-rich countries tap into these funds?” Coley asked. “A simple solution is to conduct the research in the countries themselves.”

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