TITLE: 'Scientists gave away SA's miracle microbe' AUTHOR: Graeme Addison PUBLICATION: Business Day(Johannesburg) DATE: 3 February 2007 URL: http://allafrica.com/stories/200702030021.html Business Day | February 3, 2007 'SCIENTISTS GAVE AWAY SA'S MIRACLE MICROBE' By Graeme Addison Johannesburg A loosely worded contractual agreement between the University of the Free State and the New York Botanical Gardens has come back to bite the university, following the discovery of a drug potentially worth millions -- if not billions -- of dollars. Soil samples provided by the university have proved to be the source of a remarkable new type of antibiotic that successfully fights drug-resistant bacteria. Known as platensimycin, the antibiotic was identified by scientists at Merck Research Laboratories in New Jersey, who screened 250000 products from the botanical gardens. The compound comes from Streptomyces platensis, a microbe found in the South African soil samples and collected here by a team of two Americans and a University of the Free State professor. Soil sampling was not mentioned in a 1998 agreement between the two institutions, but soil nevertheless went with the roots of the plants, says Prof Sakkie Pretorius, chairperson of the university's department of plant sciences. He said soil collection was done by Prof Johan Venter, now retired, along with Robert Brand of the New York Botanical Gardens and Dr Bob Borris of Merck. "Permits were obtained from local authorities for collections, and phytosanitary certificates, issued by the national agriculture department, accompanied all consignments," said Pretorius. The transfer of the samples has left critics in SA deeply unhappy. Dr Rachel Wynberg, senior researcher in the Environmental Evaluation Unit, University of Cape Town, and a champion of national biodiversity rights, has questioned both the agreement and its implementation. "My guess is that because soil does not need a permit for collection, this was done as part of the plant collection, but without thinking through the consequences," Wynberg says. Wynberg wrote of the agreement in 2003 that "those critical of the project point to its lack of substantial value-adding within SA -- especially with regard to commercial research and development, its weak provisions with regard to maintaining intellectual property rights in SA, and the difficulties of holding New York Botanical Gardens accountable when benefits are possibly realised in 10 or 20 years' time." The words were prophetic, and now, less than 10 years after the agreement was signed, the university, its researchers and South Africans in general, must depend on the discretion of the Gardens for any royalties to be paid. The indirect and direct income generated from collaboration with the Gardens was estimated at some R8m in Wynberg's analysis. The contract stipulated the Gardens would pay 50% of net royalties received "to any organisation or collectively to organisations that collaborated substantively in the product's discovery or development", with the "identification of these organisations to be determined by the Gardens". This means the discretion to distribute these benefits lies solely with the Gardens, says Wynberg. The contract was terminated at the end of 2004, but its provisions would still hold. SA could try to invoke the Convention on Biological Diversity, adopted by 189 signatory nations at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Its aim is to conserve species and to ensure a fair sharing of any benefits arising from genetic resources. Comment could not be obtained from SA's environmental affairs and tourism department before going to press. The discovery of platensimycin is a tremendous scientific breakthrough. It has been shown in laboratory tests and trials on mice to eradicate hospital superbugs, including the feared methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and other drug-resistant strains such as vancomycin-resistant enterococci. This alone means that if the drug succeeds in human trials over the next few years, there will be huge demand for it throughout the world. Platensimycin is potentially the most important antibiotic discovery since penicillin was developed in the 1940s. Platensimycin prevents dangerous bacteria from building their cell membranes, and so stops them from multiplying. This is very different from conventional antibiotics in which "good" bacteria such as penicillin directly attack "bad" bacteria in a kind of germ warfare -- leading to drug resistance by the bacteria that manage to fend off the attacks. Merck Research Laboratories scientists announced their finding in May last year, and have been widely celebrated since, but the implications for SA are only now beginning to emerge. Approached by The Weekender for comment, Merck in the US said it was one of only a few companies studying natural products as an approach to anti-infectives. "The soil sample was identified as a part of Merck's discovery efforts in which we collect soil and environmental samples throughout the world following the Convention of Biological Diversity treaty," said spokeswoman Amy Satkofsky. "The selection process is based on geography and climate, but otherwise is random. At the time of collection, we do not know whether the soil sample will provide anything worthwhile. It is after long and hard work that we discover a compound such as platensimycin." The fact that the collection was done by the New York Botanical Gardens under an agreement with Merck means an intermediary comes between the South Africans and the drug's principle developer. "A more direct relationship between the university and Merck would almost certainly yield greater benefits for SA, and is a model developing countries and some northern research institutions are increasingly supporting and adopting," says Wynberg. At the time of going to press, attempts were being made to get comment from the Gardens on its policy of paying royalties. According to Pretorius, the Gardens' policy statement says a percentage of net royalties received "in the event of the development of a commercial product" will be paid to any organisation that collaborated substantively in the discovery or development of the product. "Should royalties be received by the university and the Gardens, the contract makes provision for the donation of a certain percentage thereof to the owner of the property from which the material was collected," he said.