NatureBank – facilitating natural product drug discovery from Australian flora and fauna

NatureBank is a unique biodiscovery platform derived from Australian plants, fungi and marine invertebrates that enables researchers to do ground-breaking biodiscovery research. This platform has yielded some exciting discoveries, including a promising compound active against prostate cancer.

In Australia, we are lucky to be surrounded by some of the most unique and diverse animal and plant species in the world. This cornucopia of biodiversity has the potential to lead us to new medicines for a range of diseases. Nearly half of all current medicines worldwide are derived from nature. Examples include aspirin, which is based on a compound found in the bark and leaves of the willow tree; the anticancer compounds vinblastine and vincristine from the rosy periwinkle plant for the treatment of leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease; paclitaxel from the Pacific Yew tree for treatment of breast, ovarian, prostate and lung cancers; and many more human and animal treatments.

NatureBank – a unique Australian biodiscovery resource

But how can we tap into Australia’s biodiversity to discover new medicines? The answer is NatureBank – a unique biodiscovery platform derived from Australian plants, fungi and marine invertebrates that enables researchers to do ground-breaking biodiscovery research (https://www.griffith.edu.au/institute-drug-discovery/unique-resources/naturebank).

Housed within the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) in Queensland, Australia, NatureBank is Australia’s largest biodiscovery resource. It contains > 30,000 archived flora and fauna samples, a > 21,000 extract library and a > 105,000 fraction library. These libraries represent the unique biodiversity of Australia, which translates into novel chemical diversity.

NatureBank is a legacy from a $100M investment (1994-2007) from AstraZeneca to Griffith University’s now Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery. This was the largest pharma research partnership investment made to an Australian organisation at the time.

NatureBank accelerates biodiscovery by providing researchers (academic and industry) with access to samples containing compounds with high potential for development into new drugs, animal health products, agrichemicals, food ingredients or additives, nutraceuticals, cosmeceuticals and other industry applications. The NatureBank libraries have been shared with more than 30 universities, research institutes and companies.

Associate Professor Rohan Davis, the academic lead of NatureBank, based at the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery. Picture: Nigel Hallett

From NatureBank to an exciting candidate to treat prostate cancer

One of these collaborations has recently transitioned to the next exciting stage that could lead to the development of a new pharmaceutical drug targeting prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosed in Australian men and the third most common cause of cancer death. By the age of 85, one in six men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer. As such there is an urgent and unmet need to discover and develop new treatments for this prevalent disease.

Back in 2014, Dr Michelle Liberio and Associate Professor Rohan Davis of GRIDD screened marine-derived samples from NatureBank against a prostate cancer cell line. This led to the discovery and isolation of a promising compound from a sea squirt sample that was collected from the Great Barrier Reef.  A synthetic method was then developed to access larger quantities of the compound. In 2021, this compound progressed to animal testing in prostate cancer models through a collaboration with Professor Colleen Nelson and Dr Jennifer Gunter of the Australian Prostate Cancer Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology and the Translational Research Institute at Princess Alexandra Hospital.

“NatureBank is a truly unique biodiscovery resource that has enabled us to discover new molecules from Nature that affect cancer metabolism. These compounds have the potential to impact cancer drug discovery and development.”

Professor Colleen Nelson, Queensland University of Technology

This is a major step in the translation of this compound into a pharmaceutical drug. By accessing NatureBank, the research team were able to accelerate the first stages of the discovery pipeline – identifying a significant compound with activity against prostate cancer from the millions of possible compounds in various screening libraries. Over a number of years, the research team have utilised a collaborative approach across institutes to progress this promising compound towards the ultimate goal of helping save the lives of men diagnosed with prostate cancer.

In order to progress this discovery towards a lifesaving treatment for prostate cancer patients, the research team will continue to seek investment to obtain their goal. One thing is for sure though, NatureBank significantly contributed to the acceleration of the first stages of this discovery.

“Without access to NatureBank, and the wonderfully unique chemistry it contains, we would never have discovered this marine-derived natural compound. NatureBank is a treasure trove of riches that is waiting to be used by scientists for the discovery and development of not only new anti-cancer drugs, but also other natural chemicals that might be used to fight infections, neurological conditions and other human diseases”- Associate Professor Rohan Davis, GRIDD.

With NatureBank having such high potential to be a source of not only new drugs but also, for example, animal health products, agrichemicals, food ingredients or additives, nutraceuticals, and cosmeceuticals, we are sure to see more promising candidates emerge from this unique biodiversity platform in the future.

Associate Professor Rohan Davis explain the uniqueness of NatureBank:

Banner image: Photo courtesy of the Queensland Museum

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