Issue Date: Sep 20, 2004
By Ken Branson
A team of researchers led by Rutgers’ Ilya Raskin went hunting for medically useful molecules locked in central Asian plants and microorganisms this summer. Their journey took them to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, two former Soviet republics that are now independent countries.
“We looked for samples of plants, fungi and bacteria that contain bioactive natural products, which might become medicines in the future,” said Raskin, a professor of plant science at the Biotechnology Center for Agriculture and the Environment at Cook College.
The team of Rutgers and University of Illinois researchers traveled to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as part of the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group (ICBG) initiative, jointly sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture.
Raskin’s group is working in central Asia; other ICBG groups work in West Africa and Central America. All of them are trying to examine the medicinal potential of plants,
animals and microorganisms before the world’s diminishing biodiversity makes such work impossible. Raskin is Russian-born, and one of the senior scientists in his laboratory, David Zaurov, grew up in Uzbekistan and speaks Russian, Uzbek and several other central Asian languages.
Raskin’s team is particularly interested in antibiotics, anticancer and anti-inflammatory compounds that might become drugs of the future. But finding the right source organism is only half the battle: Researchers must find their pharmacological treasures inside the samples. To find this needle in a haystack, Uzbek and Kyrgyz researchers produce extracts, mix compounds and test them in a variety of pharmaceutical screens.
Western plant, fungal and microbial scientists have had little opportunity to explore central Asia until now, partly because it is remote, but largely because under the former Soviet Union the place, its people, its resources and research were cut off from the West. Some important research was taking place, but Uzbek and Kyrgyz researchers couldn’t compare notes freely with their colleagues from around the world.
“Some aspects of pharmacological discovery research were secret, interestingly, because it was funded by the (Soviet) Ministry of Defense,” Raskin said. “They wanted to create an alternative to the western pharmaceutical industry, based on herbal and microbial extracts.”
Now, Raskin and his colleagues are trading ideas and information with scientists from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and widening the longstanding relationship between Rutgers and the central Asian republics. “We were not only looking for normal pharmacological molecules, we were also interested in trying to help them [the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz] develop scientific infrastructure and some of their interesting nutraceuticals,” Raskin said. (A nutraceutical is a food, or part of a food, that provides medical or health benefits, including the treatment of disease.)
All teams involved in the ICBG initiative are committed to helping the countries they work in develop their resources for the benefit of their own citizens. “We’re helping scientists there [in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan] develop natural-product-based medicines,” said Raskin, who expects to see natural-product-based clinical trials in place within the next five years.
This article was published in the Sep 20, 2004 edition of the Rutgers Focus and is available online at http://urwebsrv.rutgers.edu/focus/article/link/1392/