Seeking nature's cures Scientists scour planet in hopes of finding new drugs

September 27, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

Terry Fredeking will head into Tasmania's jungles in the dea of night this fall to hunt for devils.

If he finds them, he will shave their hairy backs.

This may not be easy. "They are not very nice. They have nasty long teeth and the disposition of an elephant with a hangover," Mr. Fredeking said.

He'll arm himself with a machine gun, machete and nets. But the one thing he will need most is his parasitologist. That's the guy who will tell him whether he has captured his prize: parasites found on the back of the Tasmanian devil, a 3-foot-long, carnivorous marsupial. If he's lucky, the $25,000 expedition, paid for by large drug companies, could produce an anti-inflammatory drug to treat arthritis, allergies or psoriasis.

Mr. Fredeking, who has turned his fearlessness into a business called Antibody Systems, Inc. of Bedford, Texas, may be the leading expert in searching for weird creatures in out-of-the-way places.

But he's not alone.

From the Chesapeake Bay to Madagascar, scientists are exploring rain forests, oceans, caves and deserts in hopes of finding new medicines. They gather the saliva of vampire bats, the milk of poisonous snakes and the blue blood of horseshoe crabs.

Their search has raised legal and ethical questions about whether companies that harvest the planet's diversity of life should help preserve it. Should profits from those products, for example, be shared by Costa Rica and other countries that house exotic species?

And their search illustrates science's newfound respect for Mother Nature's imagination.

In the 1980s, most pharmaceutical companies relied on chemists to make new synthetic compounds, says Gordon Cragg, chief of the natural products branch of the National Cancer Institute. But now that biotechnology offers the tools to search quickly through thousands of compounds, scientists are investing in nature as a source of new drugs.

Dr. Cragg, for example, directs a program to collect thousands ++ of specimens -- from plants found in Asian rain forests to marine life found in the Indo-Pacific. Those specimens, which fill 14 two-story freezers in the institute's Frederick facility, will be analyzed to see whether they hold a compound that might be used to treat AIDS or cancer.

"At this stage the feeling is that nature is likely to produce the interesting new products," Dr. Cragg said. "Nature can produce complex molecules that the chemist at the bench would never think of."

Researchers were curious about the Tasmanian devil parasite because it appeared to be able to trick the immune system. Most parasites will dig into the body and build a tissue wall to protect themselves from an attack by the immune system. But these particular parasites managed to survive without building a protective wall.

Researchers found that the parasite produced a protein they believe inhibits the inflammatory reaction of the immune system.

To do further research on the protein, Mr. Fredeking said, drug companies will grind up the parasites, extract the protein and inject it into a special breed of mice to see if their immune systems react to a foreign substance -- such as a string sewn into their skin.

If it works, the protein could be turned into a drug to treat inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis.

Dozens of other plants and animals are providing intriguing results.

Researchers are investigating uses of spider venom for strokes, sea coral as a bone substitute, the Neem tree as a natural pesticide, and poison dart frogs for painkillers more powerful than morphine.

And Merck & Co., the world's largest pharmaceutical company, hopes it has a compound that can break up blood clots and thus can be turned into a drug for heart attack victims. The source of that compound? The vampire bat, which lives in southern Mexico, Brazil and Columbia.

Maryland's burgeoning biotech industry has yielded additional examples:

* BioWhittaker Inc. of Walkersville in Frederick County catches horseshoe crabs off Assateague Island, bleeds them in a laboratory, processes the blood and turns it into a product used to ensure the purity of medical devices and drugs injected into people.

* Martek Inc. in Columbia has invested its future in algae. One of the company's first products may be a baby formula additive that company officials believe will help make premature infants smarter.

* Adheron Corp. of College Park was founded after a discovery by scientists at Maryland's Center for Marine Biotechnology and the University of Maryland. They isolated bacteria that make an adhesive used by baby oysters to attach themselves to one another. The company is trying to develop an underwater glue.

But such discoveries have sparked a host of legal and ethical problems. Consider the debate surrounding Taxol, perhaps the most famous example of a drug from nature.

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