USP’s Institute of Applied Sciences Receives International Research Grant
The Institute of Applied Sciences at the University of the South Pacific in partnership with the Georgia Institute of
Technology, Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Bristol Myers Pharmaceutical Company has been awarded a research grant
of US$3.4 million for the period of 2006-2009
IAS Director Professor Bill Aalbersberg said the award was a United States government initiative of the National
Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation under a programme known as the International Cooperation in
Biodiversity Group (ICBG). This program supports joint work in biodiversity conservation, drug discovery and economic
development of developing country institutions in partnership with a United States university and pharmaceutical
The program was established in 1994 as contribution by the US to biodiversity conservation. Roughly five awards are made
every five years with consortia allowed to reapply if they are making outstanding progress.
Professor Aalbersberg said they were very pleased to receive the grant.
IAS has developed an outstanding program in community-based resource conservation. It has also, through a partnership
with the University of Utah funded under another US government initiative - the National Cancer Drug Discovery Program,
enhanced its skills in drug discovery. It has also been working since 1994 to develop policies in the region to help
ensure benefits from such projects are shared equitably with Pacific countries and communities.
The existence of a multi-disciplinary unit such as the IAS has helped ensure that the range of skills needed in this
project can easily be coordinated. According to Professor Aalbersberg, an exciting aspect of the project is that most of
the different IAS Units will contribute, including its Marine Biotechnology Units, the Herbarium and its Environment and
Analytical Laboratory Units.
“Given these range of skills and experience, IAS felt it had a good chance to succeed in an ICBG application. We
approached some US universities to partner us but the application process is quite gruelling and they chose not to
apply,” said Professor Aalbersberg.
“At the last minute we were contacted by Professor Mark Hay from Georgia Tech. This group had hoped to work in Costa
Rica but since there was an existing ICBG project there whose funding was going to be renewed, the US government project
director suggested they contact us.”
Professor William Fenical, a renowned marine natural products chemist at Scripps Institute of Oceanography/University of
California at San Diego to map out a Planning Grant strategy.
Professor Hay and Professor Julia Kubanek spent much of their summer break in 2004 working with a team from IAS along
with several postgraduate students from Georgia Tech.
Professors Terry Snell and Kirk Bowman also visited and made extensive explorations of possible conservation and
community development initiatives that might benefit Fiji and also build on existing IAS work.
Professor Aalbersberg was pleased that the project will continue to develop local skills in natural products chemistry.
The work with Scripps involves growing Actinomycetes sp. bacteria, which have been shown to be the best group to grow
chemicals of medicinal value. One of the team members, Mr Ritesh Raju has received training on this in San Diego and
also recently returned from a three-month training course in biotechnology in Bangkok. Capacity building and technology
transfer are key goals of the project and Mr Klaus Feussner, collections coordinator, is already pursuing his MSc in
soft sponge taxonomy. It is also planned to look for drugs that treat important tropical diseases such as malaria and
The team was also enhanced recently by Dr Jioji Tabudravu, a former USP staff member who was working for a drug
discovery company in Scotland. Dr Tabudravu was keen to develop USP as a centre for drug discovery and bring the skills
and technology he had learned in Scotland back to his home. He is currently exploring the purchase of a key machine
necessary for efficient drug discovery as well as possible additional collaboration with European research groups.
“The last several months have been quite stressful ones. The goal now is to bring the full resources of the
restructured USP together to assure we are successful in the project and funding can continue beyond 2009,’’ said
He pointed out that in the proposal they suggested the establishment of a `Centre for Biodiversity Conservation and
Development’ at USP and added the concept had been endorsed by Vice-Chancellor Professor Anthony Tarr.
“This could help unify work currently being done in these fields by various departments and institutes at USP. The
proposed heritage facility could also be a centrepiece of such an initiative,’’ said Professor Aalbersberg.