Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

New medicines at risk from biodiversity loss

17.10.2003


Science study reveals that habitat loss imperil one of the world’s most promising source of new drugs



In a letter published in the October 17th issue of Science, three scientists warn that biodiversity loss could have devastating consequences for drug discovery and the development of new medicines. "Tropical cone snails may contain the largest and most clinically important pharmacopoeia of any genus in Nature" says lead author of the study, Eric Chivian from the Harvard Medical School, "but wild populations are being decimated by habitat destruction and overexploitation. To lose these species would be a self-destructive act of unparalleled folly."

Approximately 500 species of cone snails inhabit shallow tropical seas. They defend themselves and paralyze their prey – worms, fish, and other molluscs – by injecting a cocktail of toxins through a hollow, harpoon-like tooth. Each species has its own distinct set of around 100 ’conotoxins’, which like a gourmet chef it mixes in constantly changing proportions, thereby preventing evolution of resistance in their prey. Co-researcher Aaron Bernstein, also of Harvard, says "To date, only about 100 of the estimated 50,000 cone snail toxins have been characterized, and only a handful tested for pharmacologic activity. The results have extraordinary promise for the development of powerful new drugs."


With more than 2600 studies published in the last 20 years, there is much excitement about conotoxins in biomedicine. "Most conotoxins are a succinct ten to forty amino acids in length and are exquisitely selective about their receptor binding sites. This makes them powerful tools for understanding how cells work and a rich source for discovery of new medicines", said Bernstein. Among many discoveries, conotoxins that block key neurological pathways have been effective in the early detection and may also help treat small-cell lung cancer, one of the most devastating human cancers. A compound now in clinical trials has powerful anti-epileptic activity. Experiments suggest that conotoxins could treat muscle spasticity following spinal cord injury. They could prevent cell death when there is inadequate circulation, such as during strokes, head injuries or coronary bypass surgery. They could also be used to treat clinical depression, heart arrhythmias and urinary incontinence.

Conotoxin research has advanced farthest in treatment of pain. The synthetic drug Prialt is in extended Stage III clinical trials for the treatment of intractable pain (unremitting, severe, and essentially untreatable pain) and could soon be on the market. "Prialt may be 1000 times more potent than morphine. More importantly, it does not seem to lead to addiction or tolerance, where increasing doses are required to achieve the same effect" said Chivian. These problems have greatly limited the long-term effectiveness of the current mainstays of severe pain therapy, morphine and other opiates. Many millions of people suffer from intractable pain and have developed tolerance to opiates, so a potent painkiller like Prialt could represent an enormous therapeutic breakthrough.

Just as we are appreciating the remarkable potential of cone snails as a source of new medicines, they are coming under intense pressure in the wild. Their shallow tropical habitats are rapidly being destroyed and snails are being collected at alarming rates from the wild to supply the ornamental shell trade as well as for biomedical research.

Cone snails are exquisitely beautiful and have been coveted by collectors since at least the 16th Century. A rare cone snail shell was sold at an Amsterdam auction in 1796 for more than a Vermeer painting! Collectors still cherish these shells, and rates of capture from the wild are escalating rapidly. "Millions of cone snails are now sold annually for as little as a few cents each in shops all over the world. But we could not find any country that monitors this trade" said co-author Callum Roberts, of the University of York, "Nobody is looking out for them."

Alongside overexploitation, cone snail habitats are being degraded and destroyed by coastal development, overfishing, pollution, disease and global climate change. A quarter of the planet’s coral reefs have already been seriously damaged or destroyed and half of the world’s mangroves cleared. The risk of global extinction is highest for species with narrow geographic distributions. The study found that one in five cone snail species had global ranges encompassing less than 3500km2 of reef, equivalent to a single medium sized atoll. For example, eight species are unique to the Philippines, the hub of the world’s ornamental shell trade. People threaten 97% of Philippine coral reefs and extinctions are inevitable if impacts are not alleviated soon.

Habitat loss and escalating, uncontrolled exploitation make a lethal combination that today threatens with extinction cone snails and many other species of biomedical interest. "International markets can develop rapidly in the modern world, which means that wild populations can be decimated before regulatory agencies see any need to protect them." said Roberts. "For this reason, we believe all internationally traded organisms (whether alive or dead) must be monitored, regardless of whether they are currently listed as threatened. This would allow countries to identify emerging markets and act early enough to prevent depletion." This could be achieved, say the authors, by extending CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to cover all wild-caught species. Meanwhile, at the earliest opportunity cone snails should be added to Appendix II of CITES, so requiring countries to monitor trade and prevent overexploitation.

"Wild nature has been the template for most of the medicines we use today but we have barely even begun to tap its potential", said Chivian, "If we fail to protect cone snails, the loss to future generations would be incalculable."


For More Information Contact:

Kathleen Frith, Director of Communications, HMS Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA. Tel: 617-384-8591, kfrith@hms.harvard.edu

Callum Roberts, Professor of Marine Conservation, University of York, UK. Tel: 44-190-443-4066, Mobile 44-772-936-9303, email: cr10@york.ac.uk.

Kathleen Frith | EurekAlert!

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht A Rescue Plan for the Ocean
16.08.2019 | Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies e.V.

nachricht Burst Hope: No chance for environment-relieving plastic decomposition by bacteria
07.08.2019 | Leibniz-Institut für Ostseeforschung Warnemünde

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: A miniature stretchable pump for the next generation of soft robots

Soft robots have a distinct advantage over their rigid forebears: they can adapt to complex environments, handle fragile objects and interact safely with humans. Made from silicone, rubber or other stretchable polymers, they are ideal for use in rehabilitation exoskeletons and robotic clothing. Soft bio-inspired robots could one day be deployed to explore remote or dangerous environments.

Most soft robots are actuated by rigid, noisy pumps that push fluids into the machines' moving parts. Because they are connected to these bulky pumps by tubes,...

Im Focus: Vehicle Emissions: New sensor technology to improve air quality in cities

Researchers at TU Graz are working together with European partners on new possibilities of measuring vehicle emissions.

Today, air pollution is one of the biggest challenges facing European cities. As part of the Horizon 2020 research project CARES (City Air Remote Emission...

Im Focus: Self healing robots that "feel pain"

Over the next three years, researchers from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, University of Cambridge, École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la ville de Paris (ESPCI-Paris) and Empa will be working together with the Dutch Polymer manufacturer SupraPolix on the next generation of robots: (soft) robots that ‘feel pain’ and heal themselves. The partners can count on 3 million Euro in support from the European Commission.

Soon robots will not only be found in factories and laboratories, but will be assisting us in our immediate environment. They will help us in the household, to...

Im Focus: Scientists create the world's thinnest gold

Scientists at the University of Leeds have created a new form of gold which is just two atoms thick - the thinnest unsupported gold ever created.

The researchers measured the thickness of the gold to be 0.47 nanometres - that is one million times thinner than a human finger nail. The material is regarded...

Im Focus: Study on attosecond timescale casts new light on electron dynamics in transition metals

An international team of scientists involving the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) in Hamburg has unraveled the light-induced electron-localization dynamics in transition metals at the attosecond timescale. The team investigated for the first time the many-body electron dynamics in transition metals before thermalization sets in. Their work has now appeared in Nature Physics.

The researchers from ETH Zurich (Switzerland), the MPSD (Germany), the Center for Computational Sciences of University of Tsukuba (Japan) and the Center for...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

The power of thought – the key to success: CYBATHLON BCI Series 2019

16.08.2019 | Event News

4th Hybrid Materials and Structures 2020 28 - 29 April 2020, Karlsruhe, Germany

14.08.2019 | Event News

What will the digital city of the future look like? City Science Summit on 1st and 2nd October 2019 in Hamburg

12.08.2019 | Event News

 
Latest News

Stanford builds a heat shield just 10 atoms thick to protect electronic devices

19.08.2019 | Information Technology

Researchers demonstrate three-dimensional quantum hall effect for the first time

19.08.2019 | Physics and Astronomy

Catalysts for climate protection

19.08.2019 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>