Discovery in Madagascar

The U.S. government-funded International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG) Program is an effort to create multinational partnerships among research institutions to simultaneously pursue the goals of drug discovery, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable economic development. Founded in 1993, the ICBG program has been supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Agriculture. Five-year grants support consortia that include local institutions in biodiversity-rich developing countries. Between 1998 and 2013, MBG was a participant in one of these consortia, which began work in Madagascar and Surinam before shifting focus entirely to the former country. Though the project has recently concluded, related research efforts and collaborations continue, and the project remains a model for successful international discovery programs.

The Madagascar ICBG consortium was led by Dr. David Kingston at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; his lab isolated and chemically characterized active compounds extracted from collections. Western corporate partners responsible for conducting bioassays most recently included Dow AgroSciences, which screened compounds for potential agrochemical utility, and Eisai Research Institute, which is primarily interested in developing drugs to treat cancer, immune disorders, and atopic disease. The first ten years of research were devoted to studies of plant extracts; recent research emphasized soil and marine organisms. Many novel compounds were described, including dozens with interesting bioactivities. None of these have yet been developed into a drug or agricultural product. However, the process of drug development can take decades, and some of these compounds may ultimately prove useful.

MBG’s main roles included the collection of plant samples, botanical inventory of collecting sites, documentation of flora associated with soil samples, and the management of conservation and sustainable development efforts in communities near terrestrial plant collecting sites. In recent years, Conservation International’s Madagascar office similarly managed conservation and development efforts in communities around marine reserves. MBG conservation facilitators lived in and worked with local communities, encouraging conservation activities, educating people about conservation, and creating economic development projects that responded to local needs and interests. These activities resulted in reduced environmental degradation and better living conditions for local people; the recent or pending designation of new protected areas, with full community support, in some forests; the description of dozens of new species; and the compilation of useful botanical resources such as the Guide to the Woody Plants of Zahamena and the French-language Guide to the Ferns of Zahamena.

The project was notable for the involvement of multiple Malagasy scientific agencies. The Centre National d'Applications et des Recherches Pharmaceutiques participated in botanical field work, prepared extracts, and tested extracts in bioassays for antimalarial activity. (Malaria is a common health problem in Madagascar). The Centre National de Recherches Sur l'Environnement and Centre National de Recherches Oceanographiques collected and extracted soil and marine samples and cultured micro-organisms. These institutions together formed an excellent team with expertise in almost every facet of biological science. The program funded purchases of lab equipment and training opportunities for junior staff, which will facilitate their work for years in future.

The contractual agreements for the ICBG project represented a model for fair international cooperation long before international laws such as the Convention on Biological Diversity were created to require informed consent and benefit-sharing. The ICBG agreement offered three types of compensation to local participants: (1) support by the granting agencies for scientific capacity building and modestly sized conservation and economic development projects in cooperating local communities; (2) upfront compensation payments by corporate partners that were divided between local communities and participating agencies and supported larger expenditures (e.g., equipment purchases, construction of school buildings , wells and market spaces); and (3) an agreement that if a product is ever in the future commercialized, the Malagasy consortium will receive a share of the royalties. Because the “hit rate” for natural products discovery screening, given current methods and product development practices, is low, many screening projects have concluded without developing any actual products. It is therefore critically important that local communities receive immediate tangible benefits (“upfront” compensation) in return for permitting collections.

Whether or not research following up the results of the ICBG program ultimately results in the development of any unique drugs, the rewards have already included better economic and environmental security for local villagers, the conservation of ecologically important forest fragments, better facilities for under-funded Malagasy scientists, and the development of a web of collaborative relationships that may facilitate other large national or international research efforts. These “products” will provide benefits for many years to come.