INTERVIEW W/ DR. BALDOMERO OLIVERA, HARVARD'S '07 SCIENTIST OF THE YEAR
MANILA, MARCH 29, 2007 (STAR) Dr. Baldomero "Toto" M. Olivera, the Distinguished Professor of Biology at the University of Utah, was recently selected as the 2007 Scientist of the Year by Harvard Foundation of Harvard University for his "outstanding achievements and contributions to American science." Dr. Olivera has distinguished himself as one of the worldís leaders in marine drug discovery and neuropharmacology. His work in the last 30 years on peptides produced by venomous Conus snails has led to the elucidation of key molecular mechanisms that underlie nervous system function. Studies on conotoxins led to the development of the first commercially available marine drug in the world known as Prialt or Ziconitide, a natural peptide from the venomous fish-hunting snail Conus magus. Prialt has been found to be more effective against chronic pain than morphine. Several Conus venom peptides are in pre-clinical and clinical trials for pain, epilepsy and myocardial infarction, and many conotoxins are widely used in neuropharmacology research.
In an interview by Dr. Gisela P. Concepcion of the UP Marine Science Institute, Dr. Olivera talks about research on marine biodiversity and shares his views about science in the Philippines.
How can your studies on marine snails contribute to human health and welfare?
The studies on marine snails have revealed a unique source for drugs. A future problem for human health is that the so-called "drug pipeline" has dried up, meaning that drug companies are finding it harder and harder to come up with novel, effective medicines. As the number of older people in the world increases and the discomforts and illnesses of old age become more common (conditions like arthritis, Parkinsonís disease, Alzheimerís), there becomes an ever greater need for new drugs. The studies on marine snails have not only directly provided a source for drugs, but perhaps more importantly, have revealed how to more efficiently discover new leads for drugs not just from the snails, but from all animals.
Why should we explore the marine biodiversity in the Philippines?
The source of these new drugs is animal biodiversity. The Philippines is in the "golden triangle" of marine biodiversity, where biodiversity in the ocean is greater than anywhere else on the planet. I believe that as Filipinos, we need to understand and appreciate the unique marine biodiversity found in our own homeland; this is of value to society, quite apart from any potential practical applications such as being a source of drug discovery.
How can your studies help the Philippines, including our students, researchers and rural communities?
I hope that the science we have done can be used to help students become really interested in developing a "scientific culture." I donít think that just because a community is rural, it should preclude young students from being exposed to science as a philosophy, and to learn how to deal with local problems and to explore their own economic improvement by using science. All too often, the lack of a scientific culture leads to superstition, with people feeling powerless to effectively address problems that arise. A scientific culture leads to self-empowerment, a sense that problems can be solved if one is rational and thinks things through.
How should we educate our youth and Philippine society in general about the benefits of science to society?
I think that the key to education about the benefits of science is to do it as early as possible. In the very early grades, students are curious and open; this is the best time to introduce science to them.
What does it take to develop a high-value drug like Prialt from marine sources?
Unfortunately, these days in the developed world, it takes an enormous effort and a huge amount of money to develop a new drug (over $500 million). However, it seems to me that it should be possible to do it much more cheaply in the developing world, and yet meet high scientific and ethical standards. I believe that if creative people think about this problem, we should be able to get drugs for Asia that donít necessarily have to go through the very expensive process required in the United States and Europe.
Is there a way for the Philippines to participate in and benefit materially from marine drug discovery and development?
Again, I think that creativity is required so that the Philippines can participate and benefit materially from marine drug discovery and development. This should be done by trying to get the best minds talking together: businessmen, entrepreneurs, economists, finance people, and experts from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, and on intellectual property and regulatory matters.
What can the Philippine government do to promote and support research and product development in the area of marine drug discovery?
I believe that there are multiple initiatives that the Philippine government can do to promote and support marine drug discovery. A focused effort to improve the research infrastructure is a clear requirement. Academic programs to encourage research at the leading universities that have research potential is a second obvious initiative. A third is flexible funding to allow researchers and academics who are involved in research programs to connect with scientific laboratories in their field; this does not necessarily mean long, extended fellowships, but sufficient flexibility to allow the coordination of research efforts in the Philippines with complementary scientific programs all over the world. I do not believe that it would take that much to make our research groups part of the international mainstream; one key is to figure out how to reward creativity and productivity, and to decrease rigid bureaucracy.
How can we harness the expertise of foreign-based Filipino scientists to contribute to our scientific and economic development?
I think that there are more and more foreign-based Filipino scientists in the autumn of their careers who want to help out whenever they can. Indeed, many of these scientists are willing to spend their own money for this effort. At the minimum, such scientists should be a resource for connecting local labs to the international scientific community ó thus, if a local scientist happens to have a specific technical problem, an e-mail to a group of appropriate foreign-based Filipino scientists could help quickly find an international expert who could address the problem.
What are the major problems and obstacles that you see for the development of S&T in the Philippines? How can they be overcome?
One major problem is that funding overall for science is still inadequate, and the research infrastructure has to be improved. A second problem is the bureaucracy at all levels. In addition, the seniority system makes it difficult for young people with the best ideas to explore their ideas effectively. I think one way to address these problems is to have the most creative scientists get together, to have a pot of research funds for providing flexible funding for the most deserving groups (and if possible, preferentially to scientists who are young).
What are the priority R&D areas that the Philippine government should support in the medium and long term?
I believe that a nascent biotech industry that provides products initially aimed at ASEAN countries (and potentially the rest of Asia) would be a great initial goal.
What are some prospects and areas of competitive advantage that you see for Philippine science?
My hope is that our generation of scientists will be able to initiate a biotechnology initiative based on discoveries from the biodiversity of the Philippines. In my own research, the obvious application has been biomedical. However, I believe that with a little imagination, we should be able to explore all kinds of other applications. Some of the most promising applications could even be based on pests that bedevil us. For example, the traditional practice of kaingin is really no longer defensible given the density of the population of our islands, and its threatened ecosystems. In theory, however, we can convert all of the dry plant material during the dry season (that is traditionally burnt down) into a source of energy ó one key to this may be the termites that presently eat up our homes. They have the ability to convert dried wood into sugar, and it is relatively simple to convert sugar to ethanol. Working on the enzymes from termite guts that accomplish this is the type of biotech research that takes advantage of the biological material which surrounds us. Such termite enzymes could be the basis for converting useless dried plant material into biofuel.
Based on your life experience, what qualities and values would you like to instill in our youth that would lead them to follow in your footsteps in science?
I really think that a sense of curiosity and a love of the natural world are important values; in an age when young kids are bombarded with media of all types and have instant access to the Internet, this has become increasingly difficult. It is harder to appreciate nature if you have been staring at videos for hours.
Can you briefly recount highlights and breakthroughs in your life that you think contributed to your success as a scientist?
I can think of three incidents in my life that in retrospect, were critical. The first was that my parents moved out of the ancestral home in San Juan to a new house where we were isolated, with no neighbors at all ó since I had no brothers and sisters, I really had an enormous amount of free time. I think having a lot of solitude early in oneís life is an enormous advantage. It led to my fascination with all the creatures that were wandering around in the garden, and also gave me time to read a lot of books.
Another event was that I spent second grade in the San Francisco, California public school system. There was a teacher named Miss Uhler who had the second grade kids do experiments. I remember that it was a very simple solubility experiment, but for me it was a discovery. I went around testing everything I could get hold of to see if it were soluble in water or not. This sense that this was something you could determine yourself, something that you didnít know before, is one reason why Iím a scientist today.
The third and most obvious scientific influence in my life was a dedicated high school teacher: I was uniquely lucky to have for my first teacher in chemistry and zoology, the late Dolly Hernandez (later the head of ISMED in UP Diliman). Thereís nothing more important than an inspiring teacher. The Philippines is filled with dedicated teachers, who really labor under conditions where they get little appreciation and almost no monetary reward. Representing all of the students who ultimately benefited greatly from these under-appreciated and dedicated efforts, Iíd like to thank them. I tried to thank Dolly Hernandez in particular by naming a shell after her, Turris dollyae ó we are analyzing this snail to see if we can get promising pharmacologically active compounds from it.
You have been contributing to Philippine science significantly in the last 30 years in various ways. How can we accelerate scientific progress further in the Philippines?
I hope that we can work in a much more interdisciplinary mode, which is necessary these days for rapid progress, and in particular, for rapid translation into the applications directly useful to society.
How can the Philippines catch up in the advancement of science with its Southeast Asian neighbors and other countries such as India and China? Should we follow their route or should we explore other ways?
I believe that we should examine and analyze what worked for other Southeast Asian neighbors, and countries such as Korea, India and China. There is no point in re-inventing the wheel; the more we know about how others succeeded, the more efficient it will be to bring progress in science to our own country. However, I think we should also recognize that as Filipinos, we have our own culture, our own particular idiosyncrasies. Therefore it will be necessary to take advantage of the Filipino character and to understand our culture and our character thoroughly enough so we can adjust our plan to develop science in a manner consistent with our strengths.
Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
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