Sponges soak up bonus for Papua

September 20, 2002

A landmark agreement has been signed in Vancouver that offers a developing country a share of funding for its contribution to drugs research.

The terms of the agreement between the universities of British Columbia and Papua New Guinea go beyond promising the source country future royalties only if a drug is commercialised. The deal gives UPNG an immediate C$100,000 (£40,000) initial payment for two drugs derived from sea sponges and other marine organisms grown off the coral reefs of Papua New Guinea.

"This is the first time some financial transfer has gone back to a country," claimed the discoverer of the compounds, British Columbia chemistry and oceanography professor Raymond Anderson.

Dr Anderson has been researching aquatic materials from the region since the mid-1980s and has included the country in revenue-sharing agreements.

The policy upholds the UN's 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity that affirmed sovereign rights over biological resources and spread an increased awareness among source countries.

Dr Anderson has determined the chemical structures of the sponges' and tunicates' cancer-fighting and anti-inflammation capabilities and has since synthesised the compounds. Two drugs, one that may eventually attack solid cancerous tumours and another that should relieve symptoms of asthma attacks, are in clinical trials.

"We felt ethically obliged to recognise that this comes from the original inspirations," Dr Anderson said.

Revenue from prostratin, an anti-HIV drug originally derived from a tree in Samoa and discovered by scientists at the US National Cancer Institute, is being shared between the scientists, the drugs companies and the Samoan government, while the descendants of traditional healers are also receiving a percentage of royalties.

But, according to Gordon Cragg of the National Cancer Institute, "no marine products have reached the stage of commercialisation".

Most sea-derived compounds have never been accessible to indigenous peoples. So aquatic materials have not been subject to the same proprietary difficulties as pharmaceutical plants, many of which had been discovered by practitioners of folk medicine, who were then left out of the financial loop once the remedy was commercialised.

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