Forests and Human Health Jan-16-2013

Bio-actives Security in the Era of Uncertainty for a Sustainable Bioeconomy

Mastura Mohtar (PhD)
Senior Research Officer,
Antimicrobial Laboratory,
Natural Products Division,
Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM),
Kepong 52109 Selangor, Malaysia

It is through long experiments with Mother Nature that Man has discerned crucial bio-entities; Not only to quench his hunger and cure his ailments but also to clothe himself and seek shelter to protect him from the beast and nasty weather. Unlike the olden days when the quest for useful entities (or bioprospecting) was a crucial process to ensure survivability, it now relates to the methodical search for biological resources for useful designs, genes, proteins or natural compounds. The `millennium bio-prospectors’ mine organisms for a bio-actives feedstock for the nature-based sector, one of the pillars of today’s bioeconomy. The sustainable supply or security of the bio-actives feedstock is therefore crucial to ensure the viability of the relevant sector in the bioeconomy.

At least 7,000 medicinal compounds in the Western pharmacopoeia are derived from plants. Of these, at least 120 bioactives from 90 plants species are considered as important drugs currently in use. 75% show a positive correlation between their modern therapeutic use and the traditional use of the plants from which they are derived. There is simply so much that one needs to learn from indigenous knowledge, from the healing power of herbs, plants and flowers to the whole ethos of living harmoniously with nature. Man may be highly successful in the former, but has to pay a very high price (in the form of the climate change phenomenon) for his failure to learn the latter.

Climate change as manifested in global warming and extreme weather conditions ranks today as the preeminent danger to modern human civilization. The large uncertainties about the magnitude and the unknown effect of numerous adaptations by every biota sharing the big blue planet manifest themselves in the endless questions to match! Focusing on the target pathogens or parasites, will they response to the existing mode of intervention in a similar fashion or will the adaptation enable them to resist whatever is left in our health armamentarium? More than two thirds of the world's plant species (at least 35,000), which are estimated to have medicinal value are from developing countries. What then will happen to these bioactive producers? Will these plants survive climatic change? Will they continue producing the precious bioactive compounds should they survive? Is there any other plant species capable of producing similar bioactives? Can current technology(ies) synthesize these bioactives or is there any other known means to economically produce the bio-actives? Measures to ensure sustainable supply are crucial as the depletion of the bioactive feedstock will be disastrous to the related bioeconomy sector.

Malaysia is blessed not only with a mega-pool of potential bioactives awaiting discovery but also an extremely rich potpourri of multiracial traditional knowledge to tap. It is imperative therefore that a systematic bio-prospecting program be implemented and administered accordingly, with the ultimate aim of discovering and securing bio-actives feedstock derived from Malaysian bio-resources. Such was the impetus for the inception of the Natural Product Division (formerly known as Medicinal Plants Division) of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia in 1995. Since then, the researchers have been actively combining the old folk wisdom with the most advanced knowledge and scientific tools to bring out the best of nature for mankind. Adopting a multidisciplinary approach, current research includes the assessment and development of an anti-infective agent for the superbug MRSA, relief for gout/inflammation-related conditions, standardized anti-oxidant and skin whitening extracts, post meal blood glucose controlling agent, hepato-protective agent, anti-cancer agent as well as a vector insect control. 32 assays have been optimized and many more will be incorporated into the existing battery of assays as enablers to select potential bio-actives.

Perseverance in this interesting, albeit challenging, mission is manifested in the growing number of potential bio-actives in our compound library. Some have been developed into cosmeceuticals, toiletries and disinfectants, undergoing the commercialization phase. Many of these have acclaimed recognition either locally or abroad for their novelty and innovativeness. Others are still in the stringent formulation pipeline to ensure that they fulfill the quality, safety and efficacy requirements. Knowledge, skills and R&D output generated over the years, have also been generously shared with the stakeholders via numerous services and technology transfer initiatives. Inter-ministry strategic collaborations have enabled programs to empower local herbal industry players. Further elaboration on some of our activities and achievements is available at www.frim.gov.my. Besides various government policies to propel this sector of the bioeconomy, the soon to be implemented `Access Benefit Sharing’ Act will ensure that relevant communities benefit from the commercialization of bio-actives derived from their knowledge.

In this era of uncertainty, any indigenous knowledge and skills known to mankind may or may not be relevant. Taking into consideration the vast dependence of mankind on nature, it is only prudent that scientists and science are involved in progressing even faster in order to answer most, if not all the uncertainties. Bio-prospecting has again grown into an important business that will equip mankind with the necessary knowledge to face the climate change challenge. It is hoped that through these initiatives, the Malaysian forest derived bio-actives feedstock will be safeguarded and will continue to serve mankind, perhaps in better and more effective ways than it has in the past.

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