Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Bioprospecting in Australia - Sound Biopractice or Biopiracy?

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Bioprospecting in Australia - Sound Biopractice or Biopiracy?

Article excerpt

This contribution investigates the search for new medicines from the vast 'library' of natural products. It touches upon the issues of Indigenous knowledge; intellectual property rights; access to resources; biotechnology and copyright/patent law; and the impact of these factors on research for drug discovery and development. The notorious case of 'Smokebush' and the anti-HIV active compound conocurvone provides a vehicle to promote discussion of these issues and their possible resolution.

Bioprospecting and the search for new drugs: Quest for the golden fleece?

Resistance to antibiotics, the lack of cancer treatments and the threat of novel diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, have fired the search for new drugs. These are frequently derived from natural substances (mostly plant materials) that provide templates (or lead molecules) that theoretical chemists modify and that organic chemists synthesise. Pharmacologists evaluate the biological activities of these products before multidisciplinary teams trial the resulting drugs in clinical settings and get approval to market their collective discoveries. It is a multi-billion dollar industry. There is a constant push to discover and develop new drug entities, and to market them to a public wanting cures.

Accordingly, new drug leads are required to fulfil market needs. Where do these come from? Who foots the bills? Who gets the credit? Who gets paid? And importantly ... who misses out?

The dependence of bioprospecting on biodiversity: Let's not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs

Bioprospecting depends on the existence of considerable biodiversity, 'the variability among living organisms and the ecological complexes of which they are part" (Novartis 2005), to maintain a large 'library' of organic molecules to supply the medicines of the future. The natural realm surrounding us is a panoply of variation and hence diversity. There are literally millions of organic compounds elaborated by a conservatively estimated 250,000 so-called higher plant species (Pietra 2002). Of these, it is estimated that about 170,000 grow in tropical rain forest areas with about half of these exclusive to the Americas (Pietra 2002).

Australia is considered one of the 12 'megadiverse' countries, which together account for around 70% of the world's species. In particular, it is estimated that there are between 6,000 to 8,000 species of vascular plants in the 'south-west corner' (Shark Bay to Esperance) of Western Australia, with perhaps 3,000 species as yet undiscovered (Government of Western Australia 2007).

Conservation actions and programs are a priority because there is significant biodiversity unique to Australia and limited knowledge of our species (Boden 1995). Threats of extinction to native species include factors such as unsustainable agricultural practices, introduced species and changed fire regimes. Governments periodically publish extensive reports detailing changes to the environment and measures recommended to help preserve the biodiversity (e.g. Government of Western Australia 2007).

Drugs from the Amazonian jungles: stealing from the poor to give to the rich

The activities of ethnobotanists were popularised through the works of Mark Plotkin (1993, 2000) which recount his travels in the Amazonian rain forest, and his encounters with the native medical practitioners (or shamans). Before Plotkin, there were other North American scientists, such as Richard Evans Schultes. They trekked through forests collecting plant samples with a view to subjecting them to extraction, biological activity studies and phytochemical analysis, for the purpose of discovering and developing new medicines (especially antibiotics) to combat the decreasing efficacy of the armamentarium of drugs available to Western medicine and its practitioners.

It was 'open slather' in the early days of bioprospecting - there were no rules. The north (of America) required drugs and the south (of America) was the source of lead molecules. …

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