Samoa to benefit from AIDS drug

Agreement hailed as a model for ethnobotany projects

Harvey Black(hblack@chorus.net)
Sep 30, 2004

In an agreement that is being lauded as a model for drugs developed from ethnobotany efforts, the University of California at Berkeley and the tiny Pacific Ocean island nation of Samoa will share equally in royalties from the sales of an anti-AIDS drug derived from the genes of the Samoan native mamala tree, it was announced yesterday (September 30).

"What's so important about this agreement is that the University of California is recognizing the intellectual contribution of the healers of Samoa and considers them a partner in this endeavor," Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical engineering at Berkeley, told The Scientist. Keasling will be leading the research to isolate and clone the genes responsible for producing the drug in the mamala tree, which he said would lead to microbial production of it.

Prostratin is extracted from the bark of the tree and has long been used by native healers in the two-island Pacific nation, which is inhabited by fewer than 200,000 people, to treat hepatitis.

The agreement was hailed by Irl Barefield, executive director of the AIDS Research Alliance (ARA), which has sponsored research on plant-derived prostratin in the United States and abroad since 2001 under a license from the National Cancer Institute, which holds the patent for prostratin. The project is separate from the gene-based work going on at Berkeley and does not rely on the genetic sequence.

"I think it is another step in… [redressing] past wrongs that have been part and parcel of first-world dealings with third-world countries when it comes to dealing with plant medicines and native cultures," Barefield said.

Under a separate agreement, ARA will return 20% of any profits from the plant-derived form of the drug to Samoa. Prostratin forces the HIV out of reservoirs in the body, thus allowing anti-retroviral drugs to attack it. For example, one in vitro study reported that prostratin could upregulate expression from latent viruses and concluded that "it may be an excellent candidate to augment HAART [highly active antiretroviral therapy] by inducing expression of latent HIV-1 with the ultimate goal of eliminating persistent viral reservoirs in certain individuals infected with HIV-1." It works, at least in part, by activating the protein NF-kappa.

Paul Cox, director of the Institute for Ethnobotany at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii, has studied the tree and its use by native healers for the past 2 decades. "This is a very positive example of how a biodiverse-rich country has partnered with a major university to develop its genetic resources. I think other nations may seek to establish similar partnerships," Cox, who is an ARA board member, told The Scientist in an E-mail.

Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team, lauded the agreement, which will provide money to villages and families of healers, who taught Cox how to use the tree. "That's the way it should work. It's a step beyond, 'We'll cut a check for the government, and everything's cool,'" he says.

Any proposed licensing agreement between the university and a pharmaceutical company using the Berkeley researchers' results to make the drug will require the company to make the drug available in the developing world either free, at cost, or at "very nominal profit," says Carol Mimura, director of Berkeley's technology licensing office.

As to whether any drug companies would sign such an agreement, "I'm sure many of them would squawk," Mimura told The Scientist. But Ira Loss, a pharmaceutical industry analyst with Washington Analysis, said that because international pressure has forced drug companies to chop their prices of AIDS drugs in developing nations, that may not happen. "This wouldn't be a departure from the existing situation," Loss said. "This is a licensing agreement that says basically for the developing world they would have to do what they are doing already."

Steven King, an ethnobotanist who consulted with Cox on the agreement, noted that should Keasling's work be successful, it will provide a long-term supply of a natural product–based drug. "Many times, drug companies are hesitant to get involved in developing a natural product," he said, because of concerns about supplies and harvesting of the product.

While the Berkeley and ARA work are in separate areas, Barefield told The Scientist that any company to which Berkeley licenses its form of prostratin for treating AIDS may have to get approval from ARA, since it has the rights to use the prostratin molecule to treat AIDS. Berkeley's Mimura agreed.