For over a century, plant specialists worldwide have sought to transform healing plants in African countries into pharmaceuticals. And for equally as long, conflicts over these medicinal plants have endured, from stolen recipes and toxic tonics to unfulfilled promises of laboratory equipment and usurped personal patents.
In Bitter Roots, Abena Dove Osseo-Asare draws on publicly available records and extensive interviews with scientists and healers in Ghana, Madagascar, and South Africa to interpret how African scientists and healers, rural communities, and drug companies—including Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Unilever—have sought since the 1880s to develop drugs from Africa’s medicinal plants.
A coral reef infested with cyanobacteria (dark). Photo courtesy of Jennifer Smith.
Seaweed may be a drug out of place
In the pristine waters of Pu’uhonua o H’onauau National Historical Park off the Kona coast of Hawaii, a kind of seaweed consisting of blue-green cyanobacteria is considered a pest and bane to indigenous corals, which are smothered and killed by the rubbery, bulbous bacterial colonies.
But almost nothing nasty in nature is without its upside, a fact underscored again in findings by researchers at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, who found that the cyanobacterium – Leptolyngbya crossbyana – produces chemical compounds that may provide the basis for new anti-inflammatory medicines and anti-bacterial treatments.
Writing in the journal Chemistry & Biology, Hyukjae Choi, a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of William Gerwick and colleagues report that L. crossbyana secretes natural products known as honaucins, chemical compounds that control how and where the tiny algae grows and spreads.
If researchers can translate that natural talent into therapeutic drugs or treatments, they might be able to prevent at least some types of bacterial infections in humans or treat inflammation-related conditions like acne and arthritis.
“I think this finding is a nice illustration of how we need to look more deeply in our environment because even nuisance pests, as it turns out, are not just pests,” said Gerwick. “It’s a long road to go from this early-stage discovery to application in the clinic but it’s the only road if we want new and more efficacious medicines.”
You can read the entire UC San Diego news release here.
A bee delivers both sting and a dose of melittin, the active component in its venom.
Poking holes for good and bad
The active ingredient in bee venom is melittin, a peptide that does its damage by increasing the permeability of cell membranes to ions. In other words, it pokes holes in cells, allowing their contents to leak out.
In small doses, the pore-inducing effects of melittin are temporary. The holes close up. But recent research out of Rice University suggests that at higher concentrations, the pores stabilize and stay open. And at even greater exposures, melittin can cause cell membranes to dissolve altogether.
So add melittin to the list of candidates for a new class of drugs intended to attack and kill bacteria, cancer cells and other targets by lethal puncture. Such drugs don’t exist yet, but their attractiveness is undeniable.
“This strategy of opening holes in the cell membrane is employed by a great number of host-defense antimicrobial peptides, many of which have been discovered over the past 30 years,” says Huey Huang, lead investigator of the Rice study.
“People are interested in using these peptides to fight cancer and other diseases, in part because organisms cannot change the makeup of their membrane, so it would be very difficult for them to develop resistance to such drugs.”
One major hurdle has been figuring out exactly how melittin and similar peptides work. The Rice researchers provide some clues. They created synthetic membrane-enclosed structures similar in size to living cells (dubbed giant unilamellar vesicles or GUVs), filled them with dye, immersed them in solution containing melittin and then filmed the action with time-lapse video.
The peptide, which was labeled with a green fluorescent protein, almost immediately began sticking to GUVs. Within two minutes, so much melittin bound to the outer membrane of the GUVs that their surfaces began to change to accommodate the load. Openings formed and dye began to leak out.
The Rice research advances similar work on-going in lots of places. For example, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis reported earlier this year using nanoparticles filled with bee venom to kill human HIV cells without harming surrounding cells.
Naturally, there’s a flip side to all of this therapeutic experimentation. Toxins like melittin pose an inherent health risk as well. Think MRSA, E. coli and snake venom. They all cause harm by poking holes in cell membranes.
So there’s also a need for a way to sop up these toxins before much damage is done.
Researchers at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering have created nanosponges capable of removing toxins from the bloodstream. Unlike other anti-toxin platforms that must be custom synthesized to individual toxin types, these sponges absorb a broad class of toxins. You can read more here.
08 June 2013
Sea of Knowledge
There’s something in the water. A cornucopia of life flourishes within our planet’s oceans, and this hidden world might hold the cure to some of today’s most devastating diseases. Take the recently developed cancer drug, trabectedin: it comes from the humble sea squirt and was discovered during a burst of marine bioprospecting – searching the seas for natural products that might cure human ills. This underwater scavenger hunt has yielded 10,000 products in the last two decades and provided countless avenues for new drug development research. Taq polymerase – a heat-resistant DNA-forming enzyme that is today a crucial lab tool used in DNA analysis techniques – was first found in bacteria crowding around deep-water vents. A tropical sea snail gave the world the popular painkiller ziconotide. The list is ever-growing, and with unknown depths still to be plundered, we might be on the crest of a tidal wave of discoveries.
Written by Anthony Lewis
- Originally published under a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0); MFS
- Research published in PLoS ONE 7(1): e30580
Strathclyde microplates for high-throughput screening
The first Polynature introduced a stark distinction between the meaning of the term “nature” as found in contemporary dictionaries and everyday usage - nature as “all that is untouched by humanity” or external to human society - and the relationships that really exist between humanity and the rest of the “natural” world today - that is, relationships of intense exploitation, manipulation, enclosure, and internalization so long-standing and seemingly irreversible that identifying anything on Earth beyond human influence is simply impossible.
This, the second Polynature, will look briefly at one of the primary processes through which the internalisation of “nature” into human society has occured - capitalisation/commodification - through the specific prism of one of the oldest and most basic ways in which humanity interacts with “nature”; the collection of plants (what follows is an extremely condensed version of several chapters of my ph.d thesis (Christian; 2007).
Today, the collection of plant material is subject to international law. When plant collecting is legal it is known as “bioprospecting”, when it’s illegal it’s known as “biopiracy”. These terms came into usage in the early 1990s, amid the debates that resulted in the signing of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The original collection of samples of thousands of garden plants and the economically, environmentally, geo-politically and biopolitically significant collection of plantation crops such as cotton, cinchona, tea and rubber by Europeans in the colonial era would all be classed as illegal biopiracy by the CBD if they occured today. In response to a 1980s resurgence of interest within the wealthy nations’ bioscientific corporations in collecting potentially valuable plants in the Amazon the signatories of the CBD were motivated by the wish to prevent any repeat of these major acts of biopiracy.
The aim was admirable (and, it should be noted, the solution was effective), but the CBD had the result of marking all biological material as property at the national level. The logic behind the CBD went something like this: in order for the governments of the poorer nations to classify plant (and animal) collections made without permission and without provision for financial compensation as “theft” there needs to be something to steal; because (at least, in a capitalist society) one can only “steal” something that is owned by another legal entity (individual, organisation or nation) plants (also now known as “bioresources”) need to be legally defined as “property”.
The text of the CBD did not state it outright but this meant that the entirety of “nature” was no longer categorized as the “common heritage of humankind” - as European defenders of colonial-era biopiracy used to argue it should be - but became legally recognised as the property of nation-states. Not every nation signed the CBD but a significant majority did. The CBD remains to this day the definitive document in disputes regarding the justice or otherwise of the movement of plant material from one nation to another.
In this case, as in all others, the writing of law marks the end-point of a process of social change, not the beginning; the CBD simply recognised in international law that the process of the capitalization of all the non-human resources on Earth is complete.
It is no coincidence that the CBD’s signatories’ marking of all plant life as national property - the completion of the long process capitalisation of “nature” - was directly and explicitly an effort to restrict unjst profiteering from the international movement of botanical specimens. The relationship between botanical research and commerce is long and close. It’s impossible to locate a point in space and time when the process began but it’s certain that the systematic collection, identification, study and trade in plant materials began in at least the 17th century among European apothaceries seeking medicinal plants (Allen, 1994: Thomas, 1983).
In the 18th century the motivation for plant-collecting went beyond these local and professional limits and was seen as a matter of potentially national importance. The wealthy British landowner Sir Joseph Banks (famous for funding and travelling with the 1768-1771 Cook voyage to Australia and back) was as aggressive in his funding of plant-collecting missions to the end of the earth as he was in his conviction that the British could turn itself into a world power by means of locating the already internationally-valuable plants such as cotton, tea and mulberry, and founding large-scale colonial plantations (Brockway, 1979: Drayton, 2000: Gascoigne, 1998, Mackay, 1985). Karl Linnaeus (famous of course for establishing the botanical classification system we use to this day) sought the same plants with a misguided, but then-plausible view to establishing plantations of them in Sweden (Koerner, 1999).
In an earlier case of an act of law signalling significant changes in the human relation to the “natural” world, in the 19th century, specifically in 1815, the British Apothaceries Act made it a requirement that all practising medicine-men demonstrate their ability to locate and identify the plants that were the tools of their trade. This effectively institutionalized plant-collecting and had the unintended but historically crucial consequence of igniting a furious market in surplus plant samples. By 1845 botanists and botanical collectors were complaining that “every inch of ground has been trodden and re-trodden by experienced botanists” (quoted in Short, 1994) and that to procure samples of “new” plants they needed either to travel beyond Europe or purchase samples from collectors who had done so. To paraphrase Raby (1996; 75) Europe “had been collected”. The market in European specimens very soon merged with the market in samples from the early European colonies to create an international market that was supported by overlapping networks of academic, horticultural, medicinal and purely commercial institutions well before the turn of the 20th century.
It was during the 20th century that the Banksian/Linnaean dream of colonial governments profiting economically and geo-politically from systematic plant-collections became a reality. Large-scale plantations of cash-crops such as tea, cinchona and rubber were founded from samples identified by plant collectors employed by establishments such as Kew Gardens. Though these created entire new landscapes and ways of life in the colonies (students of Foucault would be justified in talking of these social changes in terms of biopower) the initial collections themselves had no lasting impact on the environemnts the collectors operated in; for example, although no-one could mistake a rubber plantation for a “natural” environment it is plausible that a modern visitor to (or photographer of) the parts of the Amazon from which the plants that were moved to British plantations in South-East Asia were sourced would detect no trace of this infamous act of biopiracy, if, that is, they have somehow avoided subsequent deforestation in the 21st century.
In relation to the stated aim of Polynature - to introduce a variety of the many ways in which we can and do interact with the non-human environment and offer suggestion as to how and why we are able to retain such an innacurate definition of “nature” - Polynature #2 makes the following suggestion:
One of the fundamental ways in which the everyday definition of “nature” as “that which is untouched by humanity” has become untenable is through the making-available of all plant life to capital (or, students more familiar with Deleuze than Marx may prefer to use the concept “deterritorialization” here). Similarly, one of the primary ways in which all plant life on earth has become available to capital is through the collecting of all plant life into libraries of samples, “herbaria”. The suggestion has two related aspects: 1) the long history of the process of the capitalisation of nature is effectively complete and as such, is largely invisible to the contemporary eye 2) the collection of (samples of) plant life has in itself not had long-term impact on environments.
This means that it’s entirely possible to stand in (or view a photograph of what appears to be) a pristine landscape and not be able to see that all the plants found there are in international law owned by the government whose territory one is standing in and that the majority of the plant life there is “known to science” through the combined historical efforts of very many plant collectors. This invisibility of the parallel historical processes of commodification and collection of plant life contributes to our continuing ability to imagine that (some) landscapes (though of course excluding all the urban and agriculatural land) can still be described accurately with the adjective “natural”. In turn we are therefore able to succeed in persisting with a dictionary and everyday definition of the term “nature” as meaning “all that is untouched by humanity”, even though we do not need to delve very deeply into the social history of the botanical sciences before we begin to question that definitions’ accuracy and to wonder which powers would prefer us not to ask the question too vehemently.
Allen, D. E. 1994. The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History [2nd edition]. Princeton University Press. Princeton.
Brockway, L. H. 1979. Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Botanic Gardens. Academic Press. New York.
Christian, N. D. 2007. From Biopiracy to Bioprospecting: An Historical Sociology of the Search for Biological Resources. Doctorate thesis. University of Warwick.
Drayton, R. H. 2000. Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the `Improvement’ of the World. Yale University Press. London.
Gascoigne, J. 1998. Science in the Service of Empire: Joseph Banks, the British State and the Uses of Science in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.
Mackay, D. 1985. In the Wake of Cook: Exploration, Science and Empire, 1780-1801. St. Martin’s Press. New York.
Raby, P. 1996. Bright Paradise: Victorian Scientific Travellers. Pimlico Press. London.
Short, P. 2004. The Pursuit of Plants. Timber Press. Portland.
Thomas, K. 1983. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800. Allen Lane. London.
"In Tokyo, researchers have developed a technique called EUFI — extrauterine fetal incubation. They have taken goat fetuses, threaded catheters through the large vessels in the umbilical cord and supplied the fetuses with oxygenated blood while suspending them in incubators that contain artificial amniotic fluid heated to body temperature."
Ben Goldacre: What Doctors Don’t Know About the Drugs They Prescribe
This is a great talk about all of the research fraud and publication bias concerning pharmaceuticals, and the problem that affects the general scientific community.
There’s this constant argument out there that says pharmaceutical companies are justified in their price gouging because they have to recoup the losses from the millions they put into research and development. Having recently engaged this argument myself I thought I’d repost how to completely dismantle this point.
So can we PLEASE move past defending corporations who were started to help people but have since left that ideology in order to just generate profit off of people’s illness?
Nothing new here the major pharma companies became too large for their own good.
[FIJI] Indo-Pacific nations stand to make millions of dollars from medical applications of resources from marine invertebrates such as sponges and soft corals, researchers say.
But they warn that better regulation of such resources is needed to ensure they are used sustainably.
Substances generated by some marine invertebrates have the potential to be used in drugs to treat diseases like cancer, and exploration for these resources is expected to rise in response to escalating demands for such drugs, said Miguel Costa Leal, biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and lead author of a study in PLoS One (20 January).
"The global market for marine-derived drugs was around US$4.8 billion in 2011 and is forecast to reach US$8.6 billion by 2016," he told SciDev.Net.
"Worldwide, nations are generally aware of such interest. But adequate management guidelines addressing bioprospecting are still missing in most countries."
The study said that the Pacific Ocean accounts for most new marine natural products discovered over the past two decades – and for nearly two-thirds of all such products identified so far.
Leal said there is clear potential for marine invertebrates to contribute to the development of drugs that address a range of diseases such as cancers, microbial infections, inflammation, malaria and tuberculosis.
But he called for better regulations to govern bio-prospectors and marine systems, to ensure such resources are adequately protected.
A keen debate on the governance of marine resources is expected at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Brazil in June, where oceans are a key theme.
The draft negotiating document for Rio+20 stresses the importance of “equitable sharing of marine and ocean resources” and calls for an urgent start on negotiating an agreement under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea “that would address the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction”.
In the Pacific, there are also calls for wealth from marine resources to be shared with indigenous communities.
"The chemical resources of the marine environment remain underdeveloped, in particular in the vast Pacific region," said Eric Clua, co-ordinator of the Coral Reef Initiatives for the Pacific at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community.
"Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge of plants and their medicinal uses has long been a source for modern medicine," Clua said, adding that they have "often seen little or no benefit from the commercialisation of medicines originating from their traditional knowledge".
Link to full study in PLoS ONE [925kB]
Link to SciDev.Net’s Spotlight on Ocean science for sustainable development