Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bloody and Muddy in Ba'Kelalan

This weekend, I joined our Tk group on the third of three trips made over the last month. We traveled to Ba'kelalan, a town in the Kelabit highlands in the Sarawakian part of the "Heart of Borneo." These highlands are most famous for their fragrant rice varieties (Yes, It's is all about Food here in Sarawak), apples, and the Lun Bawang people, an indigenous ethnic group known in the past for their superior warriors (including, yes, you guessed it...Headhunters). Ba'Kelalan is thought by many as Borneo's last Shangri-La, with serene, mostly undisturbed rainforests. So I was stoked for this trip.

Our agenda on this trip was related to a very important drug lead, as well as some of the complicated issues that are raised whenever biomedically promising natural products are found to have commercial potential. The story behind this is long and not entirely clear, but some years ago, an Australian group, in collaboration with Sarawak Forestry Dept., found in Ba'Kelalan this tree, Aglaia foveolata, whose extracts had super-strong anticancer properties. The active compound was found to be Silvestrol, a very complicated molecule that scientists have said is "unprecedented in nature." Sarawak Forestry patented the use of this plant and its components for anticancer (Leukemia specifically) applications, and later on passed it (the patent) on to Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (since it only got opened up in 2000, and Research and Development program really only started in 2006). So now SBC is responsible for the research and collaborative efforts to develop silvestrol into a clinically used cancer drug.

Of course in telling this story, I've glazed over the actual people from whose land the trees were cut to accumulate enough material for the extracts and experimental work. These Lun Bawang never before used this plant to treat cancer (they used it only to treat stomach ulcers, a seemingly different application that might provide insight into how the drug Silvestrol kills cancer cells) so the Intellectual Property issues here are fairly straight forward. It was only after the assays in the lab were conducted that the anticancer uses were discovered. But, the issue is that the plant was originally collected from someone's land, without prior approval from that landowner. Although the plant grows in others places (even, it turns out, near SBC itself), had that first one not been collected from this area, its anticancer use may not have been known. That's at least the argument of some of the Lun Bawang, who are expecting to reap some of the financial benefit of the drug if it does become commercialized. This issue is not as obviously clear as some other cases, when pharma companies have taken a plant that the people used medicinally (and conveyed this use to the company, inciting the research itself) and then developed the plant (or compounds thereof) for the exact treatment the people used it for. The people would not receive the financial benefits of this commercialization, which trampled on their IP rights, and often failed to even mention their key contributions to the drug's development.

In the case of Silvestrol, the potentially valuable use of the plant for extracting the anticancer drug was never previously known by the people. The people in the community had some serious misunderstandings of the whole situation, and the negotiations that took place at Ba'Kelalan this weekend were meant to clarify all of this, so that the people would no longer be mistakenly angry with us, and actually help facilitate the important efforts to develop an effective treatment for a notoriously untreatable disease. Basically the people there were under the impression that SBC had already commercialized the drug and were making bank on it. Untrue- SBC's not even close to that and are in pretty early stages, not yet ready for clinical trials.  So they thought we were collecting more of this plant in order to extract and sell off the compound, without paying back the community at least for taking their own biological resources. The issue stems for poor communication between the community's leaders and the rest of the people, since in past trips, our TK group did tell the leaders about the progress of the research. This info just never found its way to the rest of the community.

So basically TK organized a community-wide meeting in what's a lot like a Town Hall, and set out to fully inform the people that we weren't the 'bad guys.' At the end, everyone was really supportive of what we were doing and vowed to help in any way they can.

The other part of our trip involved actually hiking around, collecting some Aglaia samples (to check on the anticancer activity of some new trees, as well as the old ones we knew previously worked), and checking on their overall health. Since after all, we will be needing hundred of Kilos of this stuff in order to get enough of the drug for the seemingly endless testing left to be conducted. 
My purpose for being on the trip (aside from tagging along to observe the negotiations, enjoy the fragrant rice, and soak in this beautiful place) was to collect small Aglaia samples for endophyte isolation. That is, plants are known to harbor these symbiotic microbes, and Aglaia should be no different. And who knows, maybe the microbe(s) is/are involved in the plant's production of Silvestrol. That was, after all, the case in the Pacific Yew Tree, which produces the 'blockbuster' (for no good reason, since it is no more specific than any other chemotherapy) cancer drug Taxol.

As for the experience of hiking itself, it wasn't pretty. The heavy rainfall had made the ground extremely muddy, so my shlep uphill to the Aglaia trees was slow and not without many slips. I really do not know the first thing about trekking in the mud, and that has become very apparent to me on this trip. Everyone else managed to finish the hike with minimal mud stains on their shoes and of course squeaky clean above the foot. I, on the other hand, had shoes so caked in mud that one could have made a mud model based on it. No site on my body was protected, as I found mud stains on the inner side of my eyeglasses.
And then there were leeches, as one would expect in any jungle here after rainfall. These leeches traveled far and wide across my body. A local pointed out that my ass was bloody, and indeed my upper butt was still draining blood from a leech bite. Also these leeches care little about muddy blood, since they even attacked my legs, which were blanketed in mud. Bloody and muddy. That's how my weekend went.

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