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I am doing some research on the Queensland's Biodiscovery Act (2004) mentioned in the article. Please also note the name of the the industry body representing the Australian biotechnology sector - AusBiotech on www.ausbiotech.org

Collecting native material

Article from: The Sunday Mail (Qld)

Edmund Burke

October 28, 2007 12:00am

IN A country town in tropical north Queensland, scientists are compiling a library of discoveries that have the potential to change the world.

Yungaburra lies in the heart of the Atherton Tableland, just one hour southwest of Cairns in the highlands of the Great Dividing Range.

Locals say the town is largely unchanged since 1910 wide verandas and old-fashioned shopfronts line quiet country streets.

But the town is also home to the very modern EcoBiotics, the first company to be given approval to collect native material from Queensland's rainforests under Queensland's Biodiscovery Act (2004).

EcoBiotics managing director and chemical ecologist Victoria Gordon and her team of seven researchers scour the ancient forests looking for ingredients that might one day cure cancer, Alzheimer's disease or even alleviate the common cold.

"There are poisonous snakes and, particularly after cyclone Larry, there were these stinging trees everywhere that can leave you in pain for three months," Dr Gordon says.

"But every time you go out there, if you have got the eyes to see you can pick up something different.

"As a scientist it never ceases to amaze me.

"The forest is always coming up with something new."

Dr Gordon's search for "something new" is one that is echoed in laboratories across the state. Queensland scientists are aiming for the stars, working on cures for diseases that have been a blight on humanity since records began.

They are also developing "super food" technology with the potential to feed famine-ravaged communities of the world as our environment begins to reveal its most valuable secrets.

Last week former premier Peter Beattie briefly stepped back into the limelight to accept an award from the biotech industry for his efforts to make Queensland the Smart State.

In presenting his award, AusBiotech's chief executive Anna Lavelle spoke about Queensland's "biotech revolution", with Mr Beattie saying he would like to see "biotech regarded as important as the mining industry".

In Queensland, that is far from being a pipedream. We are Australia's most naturally diverse state.

Just one hectare of the Daintree rainforest in the far north, is home to more flowering tree species than in all of North America.

We have five World Heritage-listed areas, including the Great Barrier Reef and the wet tropics rainforests, 70 per cent of Australia's mammals, 80 per cent of its native birds and more than 50 per cent of its native reptiles, frogs and plant species.

More than 80 per cent of Australia's native species are found nowhere else on Earth. That means nowhere else on the planet has such rich potential when it comes to biotechnology. Scientists say we have only just started to study these resources and they are already starting to bear fruit.

EcoBiotics has trials under way into human anti-cancer drugs and the treatment of cancer in horses, and is also developing new antibiotics, treatments for arthritis and other inflammation diseases. The company also believes it is on the trail of a cure for Alzheimer's.

Another Queensland company, Xenome, is in the final stages of developing compounds harvested from an underwater cone shell snail that lives on the Barrier Reef, into a powerful pain relief drug.

Skin cancer treatments that originated in Queensland are in advanced stages and more than 20 other drugs are close to entering the global market.

Put simply, biotechnology is big, big business.

In 1998 the biotechnology industry in Queensland comprised about 20 companies, with only two listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. The state is now home to about 90 companies, with 12 listed on the ASX.

These companies are focused on translating intellectual property into the marketplace they want to make money.

Queensland's Chief Scientist, Professor Peter Andrews, says the industry has not begun to fulfil its potential.

"It is pretty easy to see how some human discovered that coffee was a stimulant, or discovered that opium gave you a bit of a kick," he says.

"But it is much harder, for example, to imagine how you would discover that a particular product would lower your blood cholesterol."

Alexander Fleming famously discovered penicillin when a chance spore floated in through the window of his laboratory.

But today's scientists like to be a little bit more pro-active.

The Brisbane Eskitis Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies screens tropical plants and marine animals.

The institute has built a mind-boggling collection containing more than 300,000 natural products taken from more than 35,000 samples of plants and marine creatures collected from areas of tropical Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef, Tasmania, Papua New Guinea and China.

Director of the Eskitis Institute Professor Ron Quinn says the library and new screening technology makes the search for new drugs possible.

"There is great potential within the massive chemical and biological diversity of nature for sources of medicines to be found, and we could well have the cures for these diseases in our own back yard," he says.

"Our job really is to find them.

"Many of the world's leading drugs are natural product-derived. The cholesterol-lowering drug Lovastatin is derived from a fungus.

"And the breast cancer drug Paclitaxel is derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. Often a combination of herbs or foods has been used for centuries in folk medicine and is known to be effective, but the actual therapeutic ingredient is unknown.

"Our goal is to identify and isolate exactly what the active ingredients in these natural products are, and if possible synthesise them to create better drugs."

Biotechnology has been at the heart of the State Government's Smart State strategy. Since 1998 more than $1.5 billion has been invested in the biotech sector.

In simplistic terms the business deal is: if a company makes a discovery in Queensland and transforms that into a commercially viable drug, it pays a percentage of profits to the state.

"It is a largely untapped resource," says Professor Andrews.

"Take that cone shell snail that is being used to create a painkiller. There are about 300 to 400 different species of them on the Reef, each of them with about 200 different active constituents in their venom. That is like a goldmine waiting to be explored."

Our biotechnology industry has been perhaps the only undeniable success story of Mr Beattie's much-derided Smart State initiative.

In 1999, the then-premier attended the US biotechnology industry organisation meeting in Seattle and began to talk about kick-starting the bio-technology industry for Queensland.

The Institute of Molecular Bioscience (IMB), the Brain Institute, the Institute for Biomaterials and Nanotechnology, new facilities at Queensland Institute of Medical Research, the Eskitis Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies, the Genomics Research Centre and the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre in Townsville followed.

Professor Andrews, who was a founding member of the IMB, says the idea was to attract a "critical mass" of scientists to Queensland.

"That was a massive change and as part of that process the Queensland Government said, 'We expect universities to convert these research institutes into outcomes'," he says. "The Government has been catalysing and facilitating a real cultural change among our researchers to go away from doing research just for its own sake."

The most famous "outcome" has been Professor Ian Frazer's vaccine for cervical cancer. The achievement made the Scottish-born Australian of the Year a star, and a recent public lecture by the scientist was titled "God's gift to women".

But even Professor Frazer's achievements could be eclipsed by drugs now being developed in Queensland laboratories that have the potential to save millions of lives every year.

Toowong-based Implicit Bioscience, of which Professor Frazer is chief scientific officer, is now carrying out clinical trials of a new "super drug" which could be used treat the flu, hepatitis C and ovarian cancer.

The Queensland Institute of Medical Research will start human clinical trials next year funded by drug giant Pfizer on a cheap and effective vaccine for malaria, which kills two million children every year.

Professor Andrews says that in the past few decades Queensland scientists have become experts at thinking outside the box.

"We have a bunch of scientists in this state who have a huge diversity of ideas," he says.

"I think it relates back to the fact that we have had to be innovative in the way that we think.

"When people settled this country, they were people who had to go out and do things on their own.

"They were people who had to think laterally, and I think we have still got that.

"I think in the US and Europe, where you tend to have huge numbers of people working in these areas in very large teams, you tend to get this pattern of everyone pursuing the same targets. Here, there has always be a tendency for people to do their own thing."

Given the recent banana shortage in Queensland, the "super banana" being developed at the QUT's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation is perhaps one of the more unexpectedly appropriate outcomes of that academic freedom.

Ugandans eat an average of 1kg of bananas per person per day. But their local variety is low in nutrients, including iron, iodine and vitamin A, causing malnutrition in children that can lead to death.

Project leader Professor James Dale and his team are working on developing a super version of the East African highland banana, which is being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "It was not realistic to get farmers to change their crops to a different type of banana or staple food. Biofortification was the most practical option," he says.

State Minister for Regional Development and Industry Desley Boyle says the project is an example of a way that discoveries in Queensland can benefit the rest of the world.

"According to the United Nations, about 820 million people in developing countries are undernourished," she says.

"With the population of the planet increasing by about 200,000 people per day, we are going to need more food. Biotechnology provides the opportunity to solve this problem."

But our superfoods will not just benefit communities in the Third World.

Tomatoes that could stop prostate cancer and genetically improved pineapples, ginger and mangoes have already been developed and could soon be on a table near you.

Queensland last week hosted the 2007 AusBiotech National Conference at the Brisbane Exhibition and Convention Centre.

For more details visit AusBiotech on www.ausbiotech.org

AusBiotech is the industry body representing the Australian biotechnology sector.

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