Bio-prospectors seek treasure in Australia
by Michael Byrnes
SYDNEY - It's Australia's new gold rush. Fortune-hunting scientists are scouring vast tracts of tropical rainforests for plants to produce new antibiotics and other drugs that could be worth billions of dollars.
"Australia remains the last continent to be discovered in biodiversity," says Selwyn Snell, chief executive officer of Australian science group BioProspect Ltd.
"It has so many unique and even unregistered and unnamed biological species that it's just remarkable. And we're out there hunting for them."
Like the gold rush of 150 years ago that lured thousands of hopeful treasure seekers, "bio-prospectors" and global drug giants have staked claims to areas of forest hoping to tap jungles that harbour diverse and unique plant life.
The jungles beckon with the promise of a world-beating find worth a fortune - a cure for cancer, HIV or Alzheimers, or a chemically unique antibiotic to knock out super bugs like Golden Staph which haunt hospitals around the world.
The yield so far from Australia's northern rainforests, mainly in Queensland and Western Australia, is several new compounds for antibiotics, new pesticides which are close to commercial production and a pill that could prevent prostate cancer.
Scientists caution that it takes 15 years and a huge investment to bring a new pharmaceutical to market, and only one in 1,000 discoveries make it.
Agro-chemicals and dietary products are quicker to market, and even they offer pay-dirt worth hundreds of millions. Bio-prospectors range from scientists with licence claims, through to large numbers of "illegal" hopefuls.
Big groups in the hunt include London-based AstraZenica, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, and Melbourne-based Amrad Corp Ltd through its Cerylid Biosciences unit, with links to international giants including Franco-German Aventis and Glaxo-SmithKline.
The listed BioProspect has recently been joined in the hunt by smaller compatriot EcoBiotics Ltd, which aims to float on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2004.
"In the past it was well nigh impossible to get venture capital for biotech and drug discovery in Australia," said Stephen Trowell, chief executive of Entocosm Pry Ltd, a spin-off from the government backed Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). "That's starting to change."
Like prospecting claims, access to rainforests is the must-have asset for bioprospectors, especially those who want to raise money from stock exchange listings.
Cairns-based EcoBiotics, now raising A$3 million (US$1.7 million) in working capital, has exclusive access to large tracts of Queensland state rainforest through the Australian Rainforest Foundation and private holders.
It is also negotiating for access to Queensland rainforest under state control and has exclusive access to 170,000 hectares (425,000 acres) of some of the last rainforest in the Solomon Islands to Australia's north.
"(But) there's a lot out there without licences," says BioProspect's Snell. "They're going to come to a foul end. If you don't have a licence showing ownership of a compound, you're in deep doo-doo."
Multinational companies will not deal with unlicensed groups.
BioProspect already holds agreements with the Queensland government for access to plants, soil, insects, marine organisms and animals in state-owned areas, as well as a collection licence for Western Australia.
This does not give it a monopoly over particular plants, but is the first step to eventual patents on chemical discoveries in plants. The plants found to yield valuable chemicals are the most closely guarded secrets of Australia's bioprospectors and are the lucrative intellectual property of the forest hunters.
"We have a very unique rainforest (with) the largest percentage of ancient plant families," EcoBiotics managing director Victoria Gordon says.
"The Queensland tropical rainforest is unique because of the very old geology of the area (producing) a mozaic of forest types. We have 15 different forest types here (while) in general the Amazon Basin has about five different forest types."
Australian rainforests also have more tree species than in the whole of North America and Europe, she says.
The fight for survival by large numbers of organisms produced novel chemicals and survival solutions, making Australian forests among the world's most productive.
Australia is also the only country in the world which combines large rainforests with a developed economy, an established legal system and high level medical and general scientific research.
Targeting plants which it believes are likely to produce payoffs from gaps in the pharmaceutical and agrochemical markets, EcoBiotics says it is applying for patents for four new antibiotic chemical compounds, and is working on others to combat intestinal parasites and bacteria.
"We're now in discussions with the large pharmaceutical and agro-chemical companies for licensing deals," says Gordon.
BioProspect has a major natural insecticide close to commercial production, has just patented a product for termite control and is close to launching dietary and health products in the United States, says Snell.
One is a food supplement, from Australian materials, which inhibits cell activity in areas of the body prone to cancer.
"(This) is looking good (for) prostate cancer," he says. - REUTERS