Protect marine life from ‘bioprospectors,’ UN report urges

Lowly underwater life with medicinal potential deserves regulatory protection, according to a UN report released yesterday.

Researchers working for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are increasingly interested in the billion-dollar prospect of using underwater life in products ranging from anti-malaria drugs to suntan creams.

At this week’s International Marine Biotechnology Conference in St. John’s, Nfld., scientists are excitedly talking about coaxing cancer drugs from the insides of creatures such as sea sponges.

The UN report, titled “Bioprospecting of genetic resources in the deep sea bed,” warns that harvesting those creatures for bio-tech purposes could put some species at risk.

Russell Hill of the University of Maryland is one of the scientists looking for an anti-cancer compound called halycondron B in bacteria found in sea sponges.

There is an estimated 300 tons of the sponge species in the world, said Hill. “It’s been estimated that if the compound ever made it as a drug, the projected demand would require harvesting 5,000 tons of sponge per year.”

Authors of the UN report highlight a lack of rules that they say are needed to protect such sponges living outside territorial waters.

“I guess that’s what we’re worried about,” said study co-author Sam Johnson, a senior research fellow at the UN University’s Institute of Advanced Studies. “Once there is a big discovery which is worth a lot of money, the situation will rapidly change.”

The collapse of the cod stocks offers a lesson for people harvesting genetic material, said Dave King, an organizer of the St. John’s conference.

King worries that in the rush to discovery, humanity may lose some of the creatures and their potential to help us.

Source: CBC News