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06 October 2021

Rapid developments in technology and emerging specialist expertise could be the catalyst to unlocking the world’s natural reserves of tropical plants, and a treasure trove of new medicines, according to researchers from the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University.

Many diseases are specific to the tropics, with at least 41 diseases caused by endemic bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. Such diseases are of increasing concern, as the geographic range of tropical diseases is expanding due to climate change, urbanization, change in agricultural practices, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity.

The team of researchers undertook the two-year comprehensive 45-page review into improving ways of finding new medical compounds from nature, in order to explore new ways to better tackle diseases of the tropics.

AITHM Senior research fellow and microbiologist Dr Andreas Kupz said nearly half the world’s recognised medications were sourced from nature, including broad-spectrum antimicrobial agents, Quinine from the bark of the cinchona plant for malaria, and medicines with anti-parasitic, anti-viral and anti-fungal disease properties.

“We found while there is vast Indigenous knowledge around medicinal use of tropical plants, the underlying active compounds of these plants remain largely unknown,” Dr Kupz said.

“The focus of pharmaceutical research in this area, has been on flowering plants, whereas mangroves and non-flowering plants, such as mosses, ferns, hornworts, cycads, liverworts and lycopods, remain barely studied for drug development to date, and represent an untapped source of novel compounds.

“There is also a bottleneck in the discovery process, as well as the significant financial investment required to take a promising raw natural product forward in order to become a new standard-of-care treatment for a tropical pathogen.

AITHM Centre for Molecular Therapeutics's microbiologist Dr Michael Smout, said the research team which includes experts in immunology, molecular biology, bioinformatics, and chemistry, found that while cost and time were barriers to producing new drugs, rapid developments in technology and expertise was changing all that.

“We have access to emerging areas of research knowledge and advancements in technology which is improving identification and isolation of compounds in plants,” Dr Smout said.

Principal Senior Research Fellow in Bioinformatics Dr Matt Field said the use of next-generation sequencing technologies in genomics and metagenomics offers new targeted screening pathways for the discovery of natural products.

“Over the past few decades numerous high-throughput sequencing approaches have been developed and applied to facilitate the process of identifying protein and small molecule drug candidates,” Dr Field said.

Dr Field said some challenges can be overcome through strategic collaboration between chemists with expertise in natural products and organic synthetic chemistry, and biologists with expertise in biological processes and sample processing.

We also increasingly require immunologists with expertise in cell and animal-based assays working with bioinformaticians to develop discovery platforms using large-scale genome sequence mining, and shotgun metagenomics.

“Technology and these emerging areas of expertise that go with them, will ensure more of these natural reservoirs will likely reveal their pharmaceutical secrets in the near future.”

The Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine’s Centre for Molecular Therapeutics, brings together researchers from across JCU to explore and harness the power of the tropics to develop innovative solutions to global public health problems.

The review entitled "Natural product-based solutions for tropical infectious diseases," has been published in Clinical Microbiology Reviews. 

Authors in this research include the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine's talented Early and Mid-Career Researchers Dr Oyelola Adegboye, Dr Matt Field, Dr Andreas Kupz, Dr Saparna Pai, Dr Dileep Sharma, Dr Michael Smout, Dr Phurpa Wangchuk, Dr Yide Wong, and Dr Claire Loiseau.

Read more about this research Natural-Product-Based Solutions for Tropical Infectious Diseases, in Clinical Microbiology Reviews

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