Discovering Diversity In The Tropics

William Gerwick is quite happy to tell you about his scientific expeditions to Fiji. He can expound on the amazing explorations his group has led to Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and other destinations in search of exotic molecules that could one day lead to new treatments for human diseases.

But broach the subject of Panama and it's time to get comfortable in your seat. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego professor's palpable enthusiasm is rooted in his laboratory's multifaceted drug discovery and training program that ranges from the Central American country's rain forest jungles to its underwater world.

Just mention a potential drug called "Coibamide" to uncork Gerwick's excitement. The island of Coiba off Panama's Pacific coast was free of human inhabitants for hundreds of years, save for the pirates that occasionally encamped there. A prison was housed in one section of the island for about a century until it closed in 2004. The rest of the island remained an undisturbed wilderness.

It was here, while exploring Coiba's shallow waters in June 2004 that Kerry McPhail, then a postdoctoral scientist working with Gerwick, discovered a cyanobacterium, a primitive photosynthetic organism with features unlike any previously encountered by scientists. Laboratory analysis and testing revealed that the organism naturally produces a potent cancer-fighting compound.

"To the full extent that we can tell, the compound is working by a novel mechanism to kill cancer cells," said Gerwick, a scientist with the Scripps Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine and the UCSD Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. "It has a very unusual molecular structure unlike any we've seen before."

Undisturbed locations such as Coiba are rare and disappearing around the world. Gerwick's research in Panama is helping to counteract that slide through a unique program that blends drug discovery from the natural world, the conservation of biodiverse sources, training for young scientists, and scientific as well as economic development in economically disadvantaged countries.

The International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) program, the brainchild of Josh Rosenthal and others at the Bethesda, Maryland-based Fogarty International Center, oversees a handful of programs around the world and regards Gerwick's Panamanian research center as a model of success.

"Through ICBG, we are involved in an integrative program of joint discovery that engages the host country, not only in the final rewards of drug discovery, but in the rewards that come from being engaged in the process," said Gerwick.

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A video podcast from the University of California - San Diego , 3 July 2009


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