Release of a New Report: marine biodiscovery in south africa – science, conservation, governance and equity

By Jessica Lavelle, Rachel Wynberg and Jennifer Whittingham

Researchers at the University of Cape Town recently completed a study on marine biodiscovery in South Africa focused on science, conservation, governance and equity. The interdisciplinary study, undertaken by Professor Rachel Wynberg, postdoctoral fellow Dr Jessica Lavelle and PhD student Jennifer Whittingham through the Bio-economy Chair, brought together the perspectives of scientists, policymakers, regulators, legal experts and conservation authorities to examine research activities and capacity, the interface of law, science and policy, and benefits for society and biodiversity conservation. The findings of the study are published in a report that identifies constraints in the biodiscovery pipeline; disconnects in law, science and policy; opportunities for equitable benefit sharing; ways in which biodiscovery can contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity; and the relevance of international processes related to the governance of marine genetic resources. This blog summarises highlights from the report.

Marine biodiscovery in South Africa

Globally, South Africa has the third highest levels of marine endemism and as a biodiversity hotspot, has long been of interest as a source of novel compounds. Exciting discoveries have come from several South African invertebrates including cephalostatin 1, a secondary metabolite from Cephalodiscus gilchristi, which has been shown to bring about controlled cell death in leukaemia cancer cells; and hemiasterlin, a compound from Hemiasterella minor, which together with two synthetic analogues are in clinical development. To date, 28 patents have been submitted for registration based on South African marine natural products, principally by the U.S. National Cancer Institute and the Spanish company Pharma Mar. Marine invertebrate biodiscovery expeditions have also revealed the significant sponge diversity off South Africa, with new species and genera discoveries resulting in taxonomic revisions of the family Latrunculiidae.

deep-sea sponges. credit: Kerry howell

Multidisciplinary collaboration is an essential feature in the effective discovery and development
of novel drugs. International collaborative research programmes have been a key feature of marine biodiscovery in South Africa, including partnerships with the National Cancer Institute, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Bristol Myers Squibb, SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline), Pharma Mar and the University of Tel Aviv. More recently, collaborations include the five-year PharmaSea project (2012-2017) which brought together 24 partners from 13 countries and the UK-SA Antibiotic Accelerator Initiative, a three-year partnership (2020-2022) between Rhodes University, the University of Plymouth, St. Andrews University and Leeds University. Local partnerships create multidisciplinary research teams to work on different aspects of the discovery pipeline.

In earlier years, international partnerships often focused on capacity development through staff and student knowledge exchange and training. Many South African researchers now have the capacity to carry out the discovery phase, yet international collaborations continue to be integral as they enable researchers to be part of strategic networks that bring together complementary expertise in the pharmaceutical pipeline. Thus, the focus of partnerships is to create consortia with specialised expertise and infrastructure required for the whole pipeline, together with opportunities for expanding research capacity and building critical mass in marine biodiscovery research. Increasingly, South African researchers are looking for partnerships towards interdisciplinarity and symmetrical participatory structures to enable equitable, innovative, locally relevant research.

Fair and equitable benefit-sharing

Tracking the movement of marine genetic resources is fundamental given concerns around innovations from South African biodiversity without benefit-sharing mechanisms in place. Within international research partnerships, biological samples are not readily exporteddue to concerns related to third party use and traceability. However, with growing emphasis on omics technologies which produce vast amounts of digital sequence information, such as genetic sequence data and nucleotide sequence data, sharing of data and information within research networks is increasingly common. South African researchers are often cautious about sharing genetic sequence data on public databases in the absence of patent protection and a benefit-sharing mechanism. As a result, data may only be shared once sufficiently analysed. To ensure data traceability back to the sites of collection, local identifiers are used by researchers for materials and data derived from biodiscovery collections. Data are typically maintained in different, locally-based databases linked to particular institutions or projects and information may include the location of sample collection, taxonomy, links to DNA sequences, biological assay data and biochemical compounds obtained. South African regulators are currently considering how best to manage digital sequence information, in the context of multiple international laws dealing with the topic, including the Convention on Biological Diversity and its Nagoya Protocol, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the UN Law of the Sea Convention, and the WHO’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework.

South Africa is a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol and has implemented legislation with respect to access and benefit sharing from the utilisation of biological and genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge. A key challenge is how best to leverage legislation and other mechanisms for equitable research partnerships in biodiscovery research and development given the current inequitable geography of technology and funding for research. In forging access and benefit-sharing arrangements relating to marine genetic resources, consideration
needs to be given to funding for research, capacity building and technology transfer and ownership of knowledge including authorship, intellectual property rights and indigenous and local knowledge. Benefits from marine biodiscovery can also contribute to society through funding for research on neglected and locally relevant pathogens as well as other research areas that are tailored towards environmental and social priorities in South Africa.

Photo: Courtesy of the NERC funded Deep Links Project-Plymouth University, Oxford University, BGS, JNCC.

Contributions to the conservation of marine biodiversity

Those working in biodiscovery have been collaborating with conservation scientists. This is an important development given that marine biodiscovery offers significant opportunities to contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity through embedding benefits in research agreements. These benefits include, amongst others, meaningful collaboration and sharing data and information with local biodiversity institutes and conservation agencies, the development of national repositories for use in biodiversity research and the conservation of threatened and rare species, sharing resources such as boats and equipment for sampling expeditions to generate inventories of taxonomic and distribution data important for environmental monitoring and marine spatial planning, and leveraging funding for biodiversity conservation by considering links to biodiversity beyond the specific focus of biodiscovery research.

Harnessing the potential of South Africa’s marine biodiversity can help to address economic and societal challenges and support biodiversity conservation. The report suggests several actions to be taken by the South African government towards enhancing the capability of marine biodiscovery. These include:

  • steps toward effective governance by streamlining permitting processes,
  • attention to the way in which permitting occurs for microorganisms and for different
    kinds of marine environments and ecosystems, and
  • development of a policy for the way in which digital sequence information is regulated.

Steps towards enhanced research capability and commercialisation focus on:

  • promoting research partnerships,
  • strengthening coordination of projects to maximise the use of infrastructure and resources, and
  • creating a national marine biodiscovery resource centre and initiating a national marine biodiscovery analysis.

Lastly, steps towards societal and environmental benefits include:

  • giving priority to supporting research that targets local needs,
  • engaging a range of societal actors in research and innovation to align biodiscovery with the values and expectations of society, and
  • leveraging research agreements, partnerships and benefit-sharing agreements to support capacity building, technology transfer and biodiversity conservation.

The report will also be used to make suggestions in regard to ongoing negotiations on a new international instrument on marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.