Berkeley searches for AIDS cure in a Samoan indigenous tree

Published on September 30, 2004 at 5:58 AM · No Comments

The University of California, Berkeley, has signed an agreement with the Samoan government to isolate from an indigenous tree the gene for a promising anti-AIDS drug and to share any royalties from sale of a gene-derived drug with the people of Samoa.

The agreement, announced today (Thursday, Sept. 30) in Apia, the capital of Samoa, supports Samoa's assertion of national sovereignty over the gene sequence of Prostratin, a drug extracted from the bark of the mamala tree (Homalanthus nutans). The drug currently is being studied by scientists around the world because of its potential to force the AIDS virus out of hibernation in the body's immune cells and into the line of fire of anti-AIDS drugs now in use.

"Prostratin is Samoa's gift to the world," explained Samoan Minister of Trade Joseph Keil. "We are pleased to accept the University of California as a full partner in the effort to isolate the Prostratin genes."

Despite Prostratin's promise as an anti-AIDS drug, its supply is limited by the fact that the drug has to be extracted from the bark and stemwood of the mamala tree. Researchers in the laboratory of Jay Keasling, UC Berkeley professor of chemical engineering, plan to clone the genes from the tree that naturally produce Prostratin and insert them into bacteria to make microbial factories for the drug. A similar technology is currently being explored to produce the anti-malarial drug artemisinin.

"A microbial source for Prostratin will ensure a plentiful, high-quality supply if it is approved as an anti-AIDS drug," said Keasling, who also is a faculty affiliate with the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3) and head of the Synthetic Biology Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "We consider the actual gene sequences as part of Samoa's sovereignty, and every effort will be made to reflect this fact."

The agreement, signed by Prime Minister Tuila'epa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi of Samoa and UC Berkeley's Vice Chancellor for Research Beth Burnside, gives Samoa and UC Berkeley equal shares in any commercial proceeds from the genes. Samoa's 50 percent share will be allocated to the government, to villages, and to the families of healers who first taught ethnobotanist Dr. Paul Alan Cox how to use the plant. The agreement also states that UC Berkeley and Samoa will negotiate the distribution of the drug in developing nations at a minimal profit if Keasling is successful.

"This may be the first time that indigenous people have extended their national sovereignty over a gene sequence" said Cox, director of the Institute for Ethnobotany at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii. "It is appropriate, since the discovery of the anti-viral properties of Prostratin was based on traditional Samoan plant medicine."

The National Cancer Institute, which patented Prostratin's use as an anti-HIV drug, requires any commercial developer of Prostratin to first negotiate an equitable benefit-sharing agreement with Samoa.

"I think that UC Berkeley could set a precedent both for biodiversity conservation and genetic research by including indigenous peoples as full partners in royalties for new gene discoveries that result from their ancient medicines," Keasling said.

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