University Of Georgia Awarded $2.5 Million Grant For Drug Discovery And Biodiversity Among The Maya Of Mexico

January 05, 1999

ATHENS, Ga. -- Climate, varied terrain and rainfall make the tropics a botanical garden of vast riches. While development has brought economic strength to the United States and Europe, it has also brought ecological devastation in places, leaving Third World countries with the greatest diversity of plants that could hold the secrets of curing diseases.

Only a small number of plants have been tested for medicinal value by scientists, however, despite the fact that indigenous peoples have used them for centuries. Now, an international team of scientists, led by researchers from the University of Georgia, will examine the pharmacological value a group of plants that grow in the homelands of the Highland Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

They will do it with a $2.5 million, five-year grant just awarded to the University by a consortium that includes the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development. As part of the NIH's Fogerty International Center International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups Program, six currently funded research teams are part of an innovative program on drug discovery, biodiversity conservation, and sustained economic development working in eight countries of Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

"We will identify bioactive agents that can contribute to the economic development and biodiversity conservation of the Highland Maya," said Brent Berlin, Graham Perdue Professor of Anthropology at UGA and director of UGA's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. "We will discover, isolate and evaluate plants that might have medicinal value and then use them to help develop the local economy through sustainable production."

The project will be coordinated by Berlin and colleagues at UGA but involves participants in several countries. Other senior researchers from the University in the project include Elois Ann Berlin, from anthropology, David Puett, head of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology, Thomas Murray and Ragubir Sharma from the department of pharmacy and physiology of the College of Veterinary Medicine, David Giannasi from botany, and James Affolter and Hazel Wetzstein from horticulture.

There are three associate programs in the project: drug discovery and pharmaceutical development; medical ethnobiology and biodiversity inventory; and conservation, sustained harvest and economic growth. Puett is co-leader of the drug discovery part of the program, along with Neil Robinson of Xenova Corporation, and Berlin and Berlin, a husband-wife team, are co-leaders for the medical ethnobiology and biodiversity inventory program. The researchers in these programs have many years of field experience in ethnobotany, systematic botany, natural products chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, horticulture, medical anthropology, linguistics, medicine, epidemiology and community medicine.

A number of UGA graduate students in anthropology and biochemistry and molecular biology will also be involved in the project, including Anna Waldstein, Cameron Adams, John Richard Stepp, George Luber, David Gregorio Casagrande, Aaron Lampman and Arlene Ratanasit.

"We will be building on information we have collected for the last 11 years in Chiapas on the Tzeltal and Tzotzil ethnomedical system and focusing on exactly how the Maya understand the pharmacological properties of medicinal plants", said Elois Ann Berlin. "We need to determine what the key ingredients are and what parts of them are medically necessary. We now have a good idea of the most important species plants that are used in traditional curing by the Highland Maya; we just don't yet know how they work."

The team will be collaborating closely with scientists at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, the group's host-country sponsoring institution with whom the Berlins have been collaborating for many years. The group's private industry partner is Xenova Discovery Limited of Berkshire, England, a pharmaceutical company with interest in finding novel and useful compounds from plants. Also involved is the Wales Institute of Grasslands and Environmental Research, which will collaborate with Xenova on much of the basic phytochemical analysis.

"Xenova is, of course, interested in discovering novel compounds from this work, but they are also very interested in traditional herbal remedies," said Elois Ann Berlin. "If our team can document active pharmacological properties and potential use of the plants for the growing international herbal market, this could provide a major economic growth model for Chiapas and other areas. We also want to actively promote pharmacologically beneficial plant species in home gardens and community medicinal plants projects, since this knowledge is seriously threatened due rapid cultural change."

The complex ecosystem of the Highland Maya is the world's third richest in numbers of vascular plant species due to the diverse habitats found in the region, from mountains to deep valleys, leading to a wide variety of plants. Many of these species have been used locally in medicinal preparations for centuries, but the chemical properties of these medicines remains largely unknown. The Berlins have been studying the medical ethnobiology of the Highland Maya for more than a decade and have written extensively on their culture and complex herbal remedies.

While pharmaceutical companies have scoured the tropics for plants with medicinal value for decades, the rapid loss of habit in many areas has given a new urgency to the search. Also, there is a new emphasis on developing sustainable harvest practices for local species as a way to strengthen the economies of the countries where the plants grow naturally. Decades ago, some drug companies committed the equivalent of plunder by taking plants, developing them into medicines with high commercial values and leaving almost nothing behind for the host countries that supplied the natural products material.

Under the new grant, the development of local economies through horticultural production of valuable plants is a crucial goal. Intellectual property rights lawyer Judith Butler, legal affairs officer in the Office of the Vice-President for Research, has been working closely with the group and with Mexican officials to develop agreements and contracts that will provide adequate legal protection for Maya participants in the project.

"The loss of biodiversity is particularly problematic for Indian communities in tropical areas," said Brent Berlin. "We know that the remaining biodiversity and associated ethnobiological knowledge constitutes a potentially rich resource for local economic development. The real challenge for scientists working on this topic in the next century is to develop legal safeguards to protect this knowledge and then to apply it in a way that benefits local communities directly. This is the hard part; even our best intentions will not guarantee success by any means."

The team will begin by looking at nearly 900 commonly known species, though that number will likely go much higher. They will begin collecting plants for pharmacological bioassays by this summer, though they could start as early as March if completion of Mexican collecting permits and agreements relating to intellectual property rights can be finalized by that date.

Though not directly related to the current project, the Seventh International Congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology will held on the University of Georgia campus in October 2000. Called "Earth 2000: Ethnobiology, Benefits Sharing, and Promotion of Biocultural Diversity," the conference theme will highlight issues such as those raised in the study of ethnobiological knowledge of the Highland Maya. Brent Berlin was first president of the society from 1988-1990, and Elois Ann Berlin is now serving as the society's executive secretary.

University of Georgia

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