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Biological prospecting in Antarctica
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Sam Johnston
July 03, 2006

Biological prospecting in Antarctica has been on the agenda of the governing system, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM), for a number of years now. At the last meeting of the ATCM, held in Edinburgh, Scotland, last 12-23 June, UNU-IAS provided key insight and analysis on discussions related to biological prospecting.  Sam Johnston, UNU-IAS Senior Research Fellow, co-authored a paper on recent trends in biological prospecting, which provides an overview of trends in markets, research and development, and demand for biological compounds and genetic resources in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries – two key sectors that have undertaken research on Antarctic genetic resources. The paper also considers a broader range of industries – including cosmetic and personal care, botanical, fragrance, food and beverage – and reviews trends in benefit-sharing across sectors.  

Commercial interest in Antarctica

The use of compounds from Antarctica is likely to increase with the growth of the biotech sector and the broadening reach of biotechnology, which increases the value of the various inputs into the sector, including natural compounds coming from Antarctica. While the limitations of combinatorial chemistry have become evident, breakthroughs in technologies have made screening structurally complex natural products easier, and have expanded the potential role of natural chemical diversity in the drug discovery process.   For example, New Zealand pharmaceutical company ZyGEM uses a compound derived from Antarctica for forensicGEM, phytoGEM , and prepGEM, which are used to extract human DNA from crime scene samples. Future uses are expected to include human DNA disease diagnostics, bio security (to quickly extract RNA, for example, from strains of avian or a pandemic flu virus) and crop genetic screening. These products are all based on an enzyme derived from a microorganism found in a volcanic vent in Antarctica by New Zealand scientists.   ZyGEM Corporation claims their new reagent extracts DNA from smaller samples three times faster and at greatly lower cost than other existing extraction methods. The DNA extraction market is worth an estimated billion dollars per year globally. Several major DNA extraction companies in the United States, European Union and New Zealand, have now signed to use the new reagent and process in evaluation trials.   Another trend of significance for the Antarctic Treaty System is the changing nature and dynamic of research in the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors. Despite renewed interest in natural products, most large companies are not at present expanding their in-house natural products programmes, but they are licensing in, or forming partnerships with small companies and universities that generate interesting leads from natural products discovery research. This will make distinguishing research from development even more difficult.

Access and benefit sharing
Experience, perceptions, and practices in bioprospecting are rapidly evolving. Whereas early experiences in this area have generally been negative, a more realistic, pragmatic and less divisive approach is developing. The increasing development and use of voluntary guidelines – such as the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) draft Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) Management Tool (ABS-MT) – is one indication of this change.   Benefit sharing varies by sector, but standards for best practice in benefit-sharing have become widely accepted. Although unscrupulous and ill-informed companies continue to by-pass these standards, the larger or more socially responsible companies today would not consider genetic resources freely available.   Responsible companies now see benefit-sharing as a necessary business practice associated with accessing genetic resources. Despite this progress there still remain many material differences between the various stakeholders. For example, there remains a sharp difference in appropriate monetary benefits.   Another access-benefit-sharing related issue is biopiracy. In recent years, researchers and companies have become increasingly concerned about negative attacks and bad press associated with accessing genetic resources. Companies and researchers now consider the threat of ‘biopiracy’ charges a serious impediment to research. One problem regularly cited, in this regard, is the broad definition of ‘biopiracy’. Whereas its initial meaning focused on the patenting of genetic resources based on traditional knowledge without the consent of the knowledge holders, today it is popularly used to describe commercial activity associated with genetic resources.   As for Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), many challenges still prevail, particularly divergent perceptions about the role of intellectual property protection in stimulating innovation and revenue; the ethics of patenting life; and the impact they have on research in general.  

The Way Forward
The ATCM thanked UNU for its contribution. The Meeting confirmed that bioprospecting would be discussed at the next ATCM and urged Consultative Parties to continue to update on their activities in this field. The next ATCM is planned to be held in New Delhi from 30 April to 11 May 2007.   UNU-IAS will be working with UNEP and other key partners over the coming year to continue its support to the ATCM. In particular it is planned to consider the following central questions and develop the following activities:

  • UNU will continue the practice of providing documented occurrences of bio-prospecting in Antarctica to the ATCMs. Beside examples and numbers, analyzing shifts in research and development, from in-house research to contacts with small research centers or universities and from combinatorial chemistry to screening natural products will continue to be undertaken in time for the ATCMs.
  • One aspect of bio-prospecting that UNU-IAS will examine over the next year is reviewing the types of arrangements that exist between universities, small research centres, and the industry. Four to six representative cases will be selected and fully explained.
  • UNU-IAS will consider developing a database of patents and applications for patents, companies involved, commercialized products and where possible their market values.
    Download Recent Trends in the Biological Prospecting paper by Sam Johnston, Sarah A. Laird, and Rachel Wynberg presented at the 29th ATCM.  

For further information:
Sam Johnston
Senior Research Fellow

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