Eskitis team looking for natural born healers

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In the search for natural products to form the basis of new medicines, scientists from Griffith University’s Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery are heading north to a place described as “Nature’s treasure chest”.

Within the 135,570-hectare Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve at Cape York in Far North Queensland, the research team will collect samples they hope may ultimately lead to cures for cancer and other infectious and neurodegenerative diseases.

The Griffith researchers are Dr Ngoc Pham, Associate Professor Rohan Davis, Dr Ian Hayward and Associate Professor George Mellick.

Coinciding with Australia Zoo’s annual crocodile research trip on the reserve, the opportunity to explore such an area and the anticipation of the scientific riches it may harbour is extraordinary. It also promises to be a week of no frills outdoors living in a landscape as daunting as it is spectacular.

Thanks to an agreement between the world-leading Eskitis Institute and Australia Zoo’s Mrs Terri Irwin AM, the researchers will arrive tomorrow (August 26) for the first of what will be seasonal visits to the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve.

Natural goldmine

There they will gather samples for Nature Bank, a storehouse of 200,000 natural products collected from more than 45,000 plants, micro-organisms and marine invertebrates from Australia, Malaysia, China and Papua New Guinea.

In terms of the potential for medical research and treatment, the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve could be a natural goldmine affecting millions of lives.

Mrs Irwin likens the pristine conservation property to “Nature’s treasure chest, with secrets yet to be unlocked”.

It is a legacy to a man whose tragic passing almost eight years ago left Mrs Irwin, daughter Bindi and son Robert to continue the family commitment to conservation and environmentalism. Significantly, just last year the Queensland Government declared the land safe from strip mining.

Collaboration with Griffith University began in 2013 after the Irwins visited the Brisbane-based Eskitis Institute to learn more about Nature Bank and Eskitis’s work with natural compounds in the battle against diseases including cancer, malaria, Parkinson’s, HIV, Alzheimer’s and TB. Mrs Irwin now sits on the Eskitis Foundation Board, committed to raising the profile of, and funds for, the Institute.

Lasting legacy

Eskitis Director Professor Ronald Quinn AM says the Irwins’ legacy will endure for centuries, with just 100 grams of a sample lasting 150 years for research purposes.

“Through access to the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve and some of the plants and plant communities which are unique to this area of northern Australia, we will see a significant expansion and improvement of our Nature Bank collection,” says Professor Quinn.

“This will increase our opportunities to discover new drugs to combat cancer, infectious diseases and neurodegenerative diseases.

“It’s going to be very exciting over the years to build up the collection because we will be going there during different seasons.

“Around the spring areas in particular, there could be new species in these very unique environments.”

Mrs Irwin also recently launched the Eskitis Sponsor a Sample campaign in which everyone can contribute to medical research.

For $100, people can “adopt” one of the samples stored in Nature Bank. Each sponsor then receives a certificate identifying their particular sample, its species name and where it was collected. They will also be updated on the results of research on that sample and how it might potentially lead to new treatments.

“How cool would it be if your sample was the one that worked; if it was the one that led to a cure for cancer?” says Mrs Irwin.

Professor Quinn says natural products have formed the basis of many of the drugs discovered in the past 25 years and it’s vital this work continue.

Heading north to the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve are, from left, Dr Ngoc Pham, Associate Professor Rohan Davis, Dr Ian Hayward and Associate Professor George Mellick

Heading north to the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve are, from left, Dr Ngoc Pham, Associate Professor Rohan Davis, Dr Ian Hayward and Associate Professor George Mellick

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