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Fungal formulas: Industry, academics and conservationists team up to hunt for new drugs in a New York nature preserve

hoto by Charles Harrington/Cornell University
Cornell University graduate student Clemencia Rojas, left, and B. Gillian Turgeon, director of the Cornell Center for Fungal Biology, examine cultures of a disease-causing plant fungus. Samples collected from the temperate zone biodiversity preserve by professsional mycologists, Cornell classes and amateur mycologists will be cultured in the biology laboratory, then forwarded to the drug-maker Schering-Plough for screening.

An unprecedented collaboration among a drug company, a university and conservationists will result in a search for new medicinal compounds that might be contained in fungi on a nature preserve in upstate New York.

It will be the first survey of its kind in a temperate zone habitat.

Agreements announced today (Feb. 27) by Schering-Plough Corp., the Cornell Center for Fungal Biology, the Cornell Research Foundation, the Cornell Institute for Research in Chemical Ecology and the Finger Lakes Land Trust will provide researchers access to a 286-acre biodiversity preserve owned by the land trust in upstate New York to "bioprospect" for potential medicines from fungi.

The drug maker, based in Madison, N.J., will provide about $300,000 to enable Cornell mycologists to collect the fungi, and for the land trust to continue its efforts to protect natural areas. Established in 1997, the New York nature preserve is located in the town of Danby, 12 miles south of Ithaca. It includes hardwood forests, wetlands and ponds, and open meadows.

"This three-way enterprise integrates good science, conservation and business, and satisfies each party's mission," says Richard S. Cahoon, the research foundation's associate director for patents and technology marketing, who brokered the agreement. Cornell researchers will catalog the habitat's fungi, while Schering-Plough will screen fungal cultures for potential new drugs. The land trust will receive a percentage of profits from new drugs that might result.

"Natural products are an excellent source of the compounds we test for biochemical activity," says Vincent P. Gullo, a Schering-Plough Research Institute senior director. "With all the new biochemical targets available to us today, we are looking to explore as diverse a range of organisms as possible."

"The temperate zone has produced three of the most important drugs we have today," says Thomas Eisner, the Schurman Professor of Biology who, together with Jerrold Meinwald, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Chemistry at Cornell, brought the participants together. Eisner points to cyclosporin (the organ transplant immunosuppressant), ivermectin (parasitic worm medicine) and paclitaxel (the cancer treatment known as Taxol) as originating in the temperate zone.

"Our own flora and fauna are as unexplored as those in any tropical rain forest. Having this biopreserve just a few minutes from the university gives us access to very fresh samples," Meinwald says.

Mycologists under the direction of B. Gillian Turgeon, associate professor of plant pathology and director of the Cornell Center for Fungal Biology, will collect and catalog samples. Even an intensive, three-year inventory of the biopreserve will be insufficient to uncover every species of fungus there, says Turgeon. University researchers will identify (and submit for pharmaceutical screening) fungi collected by professional mycologists as well as Cornell classes working in the biopreserve and amateur mycologists with permits to collect samples there.

"We don't need much. Just a blade of grass can give us enough fungus to start a culture in the laboratory," says Turgeon. The inventory will cover all strata of the biopreserve, from fungi living on treetops or on insects and on other wildlife, to soil-dwelling fungi. The fungal biology center also will assist Schering-Plough in developing a gene-based identification protocol for new materials and for fungi already being studied by the company.

The land trust's executive director, Gay Nicholson, says the organization agreed to participate because the venture "may enable us to expand our land protection efforts while potentially improving human health."

Schering-Plough Research Institute is the pharmaceutical research and development arm of Schering-Plough, a research-based company engaged in the discovery, development, manufacturing and marketing of pharmaceutical and health care products worldwide.

The Cornell Research Foundation which acts as Cornell's patents and technology marketing arm, seeks to foster creativity and inventiveness at Cornell, to support the educational and research missions, to enhance and protect the intellectual property interests of Cornell and its employees, and to manage those interests for the benefit of Cornell's research and educational enterprise and its inventors. These activities are undertaken to enhance the local, regional and national economies and, ultimately, to provide these intellectual properties for the greatest public good.

The Finger Lakes Land Trust http://www.cfe.cornell.edu/fllt/ achieves its mission of protecting the natural integrity of the Finger Lakes region by owning nature preserves, holding conservation easements, promoting environmental stewardship and facilitating citizen participation in land-use planning.

The Cornell Center for Fungal Biology http://ppathw3.cals.cornell.edu/ccfb/ccfb.html

promotes the study of fungi on campus and provides links to off-campus activities related to fungi. The center is developing a curriculum to train young scientists for future needs of academia, industry and government. Communication and interactions among members of the Center are maintained via an electronic bulletin board, newsletter, seminars and discussion groups.

The Cornell Institute for Research in Chemical Ecology http://www.cfe.cornell.edu/circe/ is committed to a unique program of research and training in a group of scientifically exciting areas that encompass chemistry and ecology. Chemical ecology deals with the chemical interactions of organisms, interactions that are pervasive at all levels of biological organization, from microbes to humans, and operate in the most diverse biological contexts.

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