A blog maintained by Tevita Kete, PGR Officer
Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), Suva, Fiji Islands
This weblog documents the activities of Pacific Agricultural Genetic Resources Network (PAPGREN), along with other information on plant genetic resources (PGR) in the Pacific.
The myriad varieties found within cultivated plants are fundamental to the present and future productivity of agriculture. PAPGREN, which is coordinated by the Land Resources Division of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), helps Pacific countries and territories to conserve their crop genetic diversity sustainably, with technical assistance from the Bioversity International (BI) and support from NZAID and ACIAR.
SPC also hosts the Centre of Pacific Crops and Trees (CEPaCT). The CEPaCT maintains regional in vitro collections of crops important to the Pacific and carries out research on tissue culture technology. The CEPaCT Adviser is Dr Mary Taylor (MaryT@spc.int), the CEPaCT Curator is Ms Valerie Tuia (ValerieT@spc.int).
PAPGREN coordination and support
Mr William Wigmore
Mr Adelino S. Lorens
Dr Lois Englberger
Mr Apisai Ucuboi
Dr Maurice Wong
Mr Tianeti Beenna Ioane
Mr Frederick Muller
Mr Herman Francisco
Ms Rosa Kambuou
Ms Laisene Samuelu
Mr Jimi Saelea
Mr Tony Jansen
Mr Finao Pole
Mr Frazer Bule Lehi
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Monday, December 05, 2005
Posted 4:48 PM by Luigi
Bioprospecting in the Pacific: Who gets to benefit?
By Bill Aalbersberg, in Island Business. Professor Bill Aalbersberg is Director of USP's Institute of Applied Sciences. IAS aims to help Pacific Islands countries conserve and develop their resources sustainably (http://www.usp.ac.fj/ias/).
In the Verata district of Fiji, people turn to their Community Trust Fund for scholarship support for local students. In Faleaupo, Samoa, the cost of construction of a primary school was donated by a foundation in return for the community's conservation of their rainforest. Both the trust fund and the school's construction were made possible by bioprospecting.
Bioprospecting is the collection of plants and/or marine organisms by scientists looking for medicines that could be derived from the chemicals in the collected material.
Plants that have been used for traditional medicines, in many cases for thousands of years, are targeted. Evidence has shown that scientists have more than 10 times the chance of finding an active chemical in a medicinal plant than in a randomly collected one.
Besides medicinal plants, particularly valued are marine invertebrates such as sponges, soft corals and sea squirts, which are soft and colourful and move slowly, if at all (thus making them easy to collect), and tend to use strong chemical defences to prevent predation.
Time, money and expertise
A large number of medicines we buy at the pharmacy were discovered through bioprospecting. For example, the chemicals vinblastin and vincristine, now used in anti-leukemia drugs, were discovered in the ornamental rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus). It is estimated that about one-third of the drugs prescribed in the United States-including aspirin, ephedrine, belladonna, penicillin, quinine, morphine, digitalis and many anti-cancer drugs-contain plant-derived components.
The process of drug discovery takes about 15 years from sample collection to having a marketable drug, and involves:
Who gets the benefits?
A major issue related to the work of bioprospecting is who benefits if medicines are found. In the past, plants and marine organisms were often collected from developing countries by Western researchers and the source country received little in return.
This neo-colonial “open access” policy was turned on its head by the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity, which gave sovereign rights of biodiversity to the source country but encouraged them to allow access to outside researchers under mutually agreed terms.
Pacific countries have been slow to develop this so-called “access and benefit-sharing” legislation.
In the examples cited at the start of this article, it was the collecting group working with the local community who ensured that a wide range of benefits were made available to the source area. Responsible scientists understand the importance of preserving the biological diversity from which the chemicals come, and to further this preservation, they seek partnerships that will allow source communities to undertake conservation efforts.
Local organisms show promise
No chemical derived from a Pacific organism has yet been fully developed into a marketable drug. But several are showing promise.
The Universities of the South Pacific (USP) and Papua New Guinea (UPNG) are playing leading roles in the development of biodiversity by the use of biotechnology, having set up local enterprises to increase local ability to perform the work.
Both universities have received a prestigious International Cooperation in Biodiversity Grant given by the United States government to partnerships of US and overseas universities working to discover drugs and conserve biodiversity.
USP is working with the Georgia Institute of Technology and UPNG with the University of Utah, with funding of about US$3 million over a five-year period. USP's Institute of Applied Sciences (IAS) has set up a research unit in collaboration with the Regional Germplasm Centre of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), focusing on marine biotechnology such as DNA fingerprinting of sponges and soft corals.
Collaborations such as these are helping to bring benefits to the people of the Pacific and, ultimately, to the people of the world.
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