Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Fungi among Them Garden, Zoo and Pharmaceutical Giant Team Up to Find Treatments for Illnesses

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Fungi among Them Garden, Zoo and Pharmaceutical Giant Team Up to Find Treatments for Illnesses

Article excerpt

MAYBE the cure for Alzheimer's, heart disease or arthritis is locked in a rare Siberian pine tree from the Altai Mountains, now growing at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Or maybe a clue to the next wonder drug is contained in an even more unlikely biological hideaway: African elephant dung at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

While these scenarios might sound like the stuff of science-fiction B-movies, scientists are taking them for real.

They are the premise behind ground-breaking partnerships worked out in recent months between the Chicago garden, the Milwaukee zoo and Abbott Laboratories, a North Chicago-based health product giant.

The partnerships are a first for the zoo and the botanic garden, officials said. But Abbott is just one of dozens of pharmaceutical companies, research groups and academic institutions worldwide in a race to develop new medicines from nature. At stake are billions in potential revenue and new treatments for some of humankind's most intractable illnesses.

By year's end, plant experts at the garden will send Abbott scientists about 1,000 clippings from some 200 exotic woody shrubs, trees and grasses, reaped from collecting expeditions in Japan, South Korea, Siberia and elsewhere.

At the same time, zoo officials have donated samples - small samples, in plastic bags - of animal dung, starting with American elk indigenous to the Dakotas, dall sheep from Alaska and African elephants.

Although Abbott collects samples from around the world for testing, using local resources like those at the zoo and the botanic garden is a convenient and economical way to enhance that research.

Even though other drug research programs have formed partnerships to get rare plants that they hope will yield undiscovered chemical compounds, the Abbott partnership is looking for something more unusual: a class of microscopic fungi that live benignly inside healthy plants and plant-eating animals. Such harmless fungi came under serious study only in the last 15 years, according to James McAlpine, an Abbott senior researcher.

The word fungi refers to a large group of organisms from mushrooms to mold in the basement to invisible organisms that permeate plants and soil. In addition to medicines, fungi have given the world beer, wine, bread and soy sauce by carrying out fermentation.

Most plant fungi research previously centered on those species that cause plant diseases, or soil fungi such as penicillium notatum, the microbe that produces the most famous antibiotic, penicillin.

In the Milwaukee County Zoo animals, Abbott scientists hope to find novel species of fungi that originally came from plants eaten in their native lands. Even though many of the animals may have been born in captivity, officials hope that the fungi would be passed along from generation to generation.

Abbott scientists cultivate the fungi in the lab, a painstaking procedure that starts in a petri dish and ends on a sterilized piece of Shredded Wheat. Abbott scientists have found the fibrous, airy breakfast cereal ideal for fungi growing. Then the incredibly complex compounds produced by fungi are tested for their disease-fighting ability.

Examining plant-based fungi for such compounds "is a very interesting approach," said Paul Armond, a scientist at Connecticut-based Pfizer Inc., a drug company currently examining plants - but not fungi - from the New York Botanical Garden.

"They're going to see classes of organisms which probably have not been looked at to any great extent," Armond said of the Abbott project. "And that's what this whole thing is about, to look at diverse organisms that have not been explored previously as a source of new leads for drugs."

Although a quarter of the drugs prescribed in the United States are extracted or derived from plants, interest in natural products had waned by the 1970s as drug companies focused on synthesizing compounds. …

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