Panama’s forests and seas hold scope for new cures

Investigadora analiza muestras en un microscopio
Researcher Giannina Young performs tests on species samples collected in protected areas of Panama. Photo: INDICASAT

Panama’s tropical seas and forests make this small nation one of the six most biodiverse countries in the world. Biological diversity is a genetic reservoir with immeasurable value for technological innovation, essential to combating climate change, contributing to food security and treating disease.

In this setting, a group of Panamanian scientists and researchers has discovered at least eight highly active compounds. As part of a project by UNDP and Panama’s Ministry of Environment, two of these discoveries have caught the interest of the pharmaceutical industry and could move into clinical trials and eventually be marketed.

The project, devoted to promoting application of the Nagoya Protocol in Panama, aims to identify natural products for the pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries and promote the sustainable and equitable use of genetic resources.

Highlights

  • UNDP supported establishment of a microbial culture collection with 5,000 strains, in addition to the 4,500 samples collected and preserved for scientific study.
  • 2,200 people have participated in awareness-raising campaigns on the protection and use of biodiversity, held in 18 universities and schools.
  • The project’s results have been highlighted in 16 articles published in scientific journals.

The Nagoya Protocol, signed by Panama in 2011, establishes a number of international standards that can facilitate access to and sharing of benefits from the use of genetic resources and traditional knowledge, especially from indigenous communities.

In three years the project, funded by the Global Environmental Facility’s (GEF) Nagoya Protocol Implementation Fund, has promoted research, technology transfer, and awareness-raising on issues such as biodiversity, biotechnology and access to genetic resources.

The project supported improvements in biodiversity education and research infrastructure, by refurbishing the Santa Cruz trail at Isla Coiba National Marine Park, with the identification of 2,346 plant species in the area. It also promoted dialogue among the Ministry of Environment, the private sector, academia, and bio-commerce—the sale of goods and services sustainably derived from native biodiversity—such as foods and cosmetics.

Some 2,200 people also participated in awareness-raising campaigns on the protection and use of biodiversity, held in 18 universities and schools. Additionally, 15 undergraduate, masters and doctoral students are heading up biodiversity research projects.

The project’s results have been highlighted in 16 articles published in scientific journals that report on the work and scope of the research.

According to Luis Cubilla, a researcher with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and the University of Panama, “the real impact of the project lies in developing human resources, in having an impact on the country’s scientific system by involving more talented young people, in participating in programmes and working to raise awareness in communities and groups about protection of biological resources.”

As for technology transfer and strategies to facilitate discovery of active compounds, UNDP supported establishment of a microbial culture collection at the Institute for Scientific Research and High Technology Services (INDICASAT) with 5,000 strains, in addition to the 4,500 samples collected and preserved by STRI for scientific study.

INDICASAT researcher and project lead Carmenza Spadafora says the project has a lot to offer other developing countries that have a wealth of cultural and biological diversity: “A scenario has been created for interaction, enabling unique synergy with national and international scientists and an ongoing flow of knowledge and technology transfer to Panama.”

The UNDP programme officer in Panama, Jessica Young, notes that another key achievement of the project is the development of national capacities on legal issues around the Nagoya Protocol: “This is an extremely important aspect for developing and implementing effective legal instruments, which will enable benefit-sharing contracts to become a true element of sustainable development."

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