A research team is exploring the length and breadth of Panama in search of exotic molecules that could one day lead to new treatments for human diseases like cancer, malaria and dengue fever.
The team is being led by William Gerwick from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC (University of California) San Diego.
It was at the island of Coiba off Panama's Pacific coast, where in June 2004, Kerry McPhail, then a postdoctoral scientist working with Gerwick, discovered a cyanobacterium in shallow water, a primitive photosynthetic organism with features unlike any previously encountered by scientists.
Laboratory analysis and testing revealed that the organism naturally produces a potent cancer-fighting compound.
"To the full extent that we can tell, the compound is working by a novel mechanism to kill cancer cells," said Gerwick, a scientist with the Scripps Center for Marine Biotechnology and Biomedicine and the UCSD Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
"It has a very unusual molecular structure unlike any we've seen before," he added.
Panama's location as a bridge between North and South America and a natural thoroughfare for a diverse assortment of migratory land and water species gives it a unique appeal to scientists.
"Despite the fact that we all know Panama because of its famous canal, I have been struck by how remote and primitive and relatively unspoiled large stretches of Panama remain today," said Gerwick.
Lena Gerwick, a biologist and fellow Scripps researcher, believes that in addition to cancer, the Panamanian environment could be holding biomedically promising sources for treating malaria and tropical diseases such as Chagas' disease, leishmaniasis, and dengue fever.
Such diseases have been labeled as "neglected" afflictions because they impact millions of people, but have been largely forgotten by the developed world and pharmaceutical companies due to the anticipation of poor returns, and thus few resources are made available to find new treatments for these diseases.
"If you have a lot of diverse organisms, as you find in the tropics, they produce a large diversity of natural products," said Lena Gerwick.
"There is high competition for every species to carve out its own niche and survive. With that you find a lot of compounds used in defense and other diverse activities. Within this biodiversity might be the next cure for malaria or the next cure for tuberculosis, so there is a great need to conserve it," she added.