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impediments to biodiscovery in this country. According to her, pharmaceutical companies are not willing to take on the overheads of collection, curation and screening, especially for marine organisms. The deeper you go, the more complicated the gear you just start adding zeros to the cost, Dr Evans-Illidge says.


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FoodFactor Consuming more plantbased foods may help us and the planet 33

IT TOOK a moment for John The recognition and comWatson to realise that he had mercial application of Indigelost something. The elder from nous plant knowledge is part of the Jarlmadangah Burru Aborigi- a wider interest in the exploration nal Community in The Kimber- of Australias biodiversity for new ley was hunting crocodiles with resources of social and commerhis brother when his quarry bit cial value, known as bioprospectback, taking half his finger. ing or biodiscovery. We couldnt catch him but Name at end of quote here But with climate change he caught me, Mr Watson says. threatening biodiversity, nature I didnt know he taken it I as a powerhouse of potential see the water is red and it was my may instead become an epitaph blood. Then when I pulled it out to what could have been. of the water it was painful. While industries such as agriA long way from home, Mr culture, manufacturing and engiWatson pulled the bark off a neering have been involved in marjarla tree, an Aboriginal bioprospecting, the pharmaceuremedy that has long been used tical sector has led the way. to numb pain, chewed it up and Of the 877 small-molecule spat it on the open wound, which new chemical entities introhealed nicely. duced between 1981 and 2002, His experience led to a collab- 49% were derived from natural oration between the community products. and Griffith University, QueensThe World Bank has estiland, which identified the active mated that plant-related medicicompounds and extracted two nal products will reach a global painkillers from the bark. value of $US5 trillion by 2050. The collaboration is looking In Australia, our oceans to further develop topical creams have yielded some exciting drug and pain-killing drugs. candidates.

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Dr Kirsten Benkendorff (PhD), researcher and lecturer at Queenslands Southern Cross University, recently announced that molecules from the Australian whelk had been identified as having the potential for anticancer, antiviral and antibacterial medicines. The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) has also identified bioactive molecules from the chondropsis sponge, with the potential to treat osteosarcoma and osteoporosis. Dr Libby Evans-Illidge (PhD), a research scientist who manages the AIMS library of 20,000 marine organisms, says the institutes samples from 1600 marine collection sites around Australia are not even the tip of the iceberg. There are environments that we havent been to and there are environments that no-one has ever been to, she says. But with climate scientists highlighting the dangers of increased average temperatures,

altered patterns of precipitation, sea level rises and changes in the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events, the potential of such environments may be lost before it is found. The impacts on biodiversity will be profound, says Professor Lesley Hughes, the head of Macquarie Universitys biological sciences department and a member of Australias Climate Commission. There are a lot of species likely to go extinct as a direct impact of climate change; therefore the overall pool is diminishing. But it is not just extinction of species that is cause for concern, she says. Disruption of ecosystems is playing Russian roulette with our biodiversity. We know the structure and composition of ecological communities will change as individual components change, Professor Hughes says. The Great Barrier Reef, one of

the worlds most diverse ecosystems, has become the poster child for climate change impacts. Elevated sea temperatures have caused stress-induced expulsion of the corals symbiotic protozoa, zooxanthellae, leading to coral bleaching and death. Theyre also getting hit by rising sea levels and increased intensity of tropical cyclones and increased acidification of ocean waters, says Professor Hughes. If ocean temperatures rise by 1.5C, as projected by climate scientists, 95% of the reef home to 1500 sponge species, 500 seaweed species, 4000 mollusc species and 800 echinoderm species could be lost by 2050.

dynamics, Professor Beattie, who was recently the director of the Commonwealth Key Centre for Biodiversity and Bioresources, writes in Mays Austral Ecology. Back on land, where episodic events such as fire, floods and droughts drive a lot of Australias

in australia, our oceans have yielded some exciting drug candidates

ecology, species will either perish or shift geographical areas as the timing and intensity of these events change, says Professor Hughes. Management of biodiversity in countries such as Australia is critical for the future of bioprospecting. Australia has the greatest potential for bioprospecting of any developed nation. As a mega-biodiverse country, it has high levels of endemic biodiversity that place it first among developed nations, and sixth globally, on the National Biodiversity Index.

Fight For survival

According to Emeritus Professor Andrew Beattie, a researcher at Macquarie Universitys biological sciences department, novel metabolites can be harnessed from the very interplay of such communities, where the organisms fight for space and survival involves a kind of chemical warfare. Much bioprospecting in the past failed to recognise that the products sought were products of evolution by natural selection in the context of ecosystem

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A 2005 report by the Prime Ministers Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) says the level of return is predicted to be substantial, with milestone payments, royalties, licence fees, shares and equities among the financial benefits. According to Dr Stuart Newman (PhD), strategic development manager of the Eskitis Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies at Griffith University, we have barely scratched the surface of what Australias biodiversity has to offer. In 1993 the university combined forces with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, which invested $100 million over 15 years to undertake natural product drug discovery. As part of the process, Queensland Museum sampled invertebrates from the Great Barrier Reef and Queensland Herbarium sampled plants from across the state. Thirty-seven new plant species and nearly 1500 new marine organisms were discovered. Further collections from Tasmania, Papua New Guinea and China have helped create the Eskitis Institutes Nature Bank, which houses 45,000 plant and marine invertebrate samples and 200,000 natural product fractions.

Its a biological library of knowledge just waiting to be read, says Dr Newman. Having identified small molecules with drug-like properties but unknown activity, the institute tests their extracts against disease assays. We identify something and the [partnering] organisation takes it forward, because were the first step in the chain, he says. During the institutes 15-year partnership with AstraZeneca, researchers focused on cancer, cardiovascular diseases and CNS pain. Drug development is still under commercial wraps. Theyve got the leads out of the library and theyre taking them forward internally, says Dr Newman. The bank has also been used in the drug search for malaria, sleeping sickness, Parkinsons disease, thrombosis and schizophrenia treatment, with collaborators including Pfizer, Actelion, the Medicines for Malaria Venture, and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative. Dr Evans-Illidge says repositories such as AIMS and the Nature Bank have been developed to overcome some of the

Public investment
With the journey from discovery to market taking 1015 years, many pharmaceutical companies are also unwilling to risk investment without a strong proof of concept from the inventor, which is generally in the public sector. Increased public investment is therefore imperative for realising Australias bioprospecting potential, says the PMSEIC biodiscovery report. While scientists are unable to predict exactly how species will respond to climate change, Dr Evans-Illidge says what we stand to lose is clear. There is enormous molecular diversity out there, she says, including compounds that noone has even dreamed of.
References at medobs.com.au

drugs from the deep

Will Australias enormous potential for developing medical treatments from bioprospecting be jeopardised by climate change? Jane Lyons investigates.
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