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Scientific breakthrough?

Jamaican doctor says research findings eliminate need for testing drugs on animals

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate Editor — Features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, April 14, 2013    

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LOCAL researcher Dr Lawrence Williams says he has made a breakthrough which eliminates the need for laboratory testing of animals in the development of anti-inflammatory drugs.

The Jamaican scientist, a consultant at the Scientific Research Council (SRC), has developed a bovine serum albumin (BSA) assay which, in layman's terms, is a protein derived from the blood of cattle, purified into a solid form which responds like living tissue when exposed to heat.

"This assay is positive. We are 100 per cent sure this assay can detect anti-inflammatory illnesses, which is a huge market; you're talking about lupus, you're talking about arthritis, you're talking about kidney nephritis diseases and several other issues, all diseases that deal with inflammation," Williams told the Jamaica Observer.

"Instead of using animals, we could use this assay to elucidate the structure and all those processes (previously) involved in the use of animals. So this assay is to reduce the use of animals in the development of certain drugs, for example, anti-inflammatory drugs," he said.

The development is no doubt good news for animal lovers, but it also means that scientists will no longer have to seek ethical approval for research involving animals. Also, according to Dr Williams, the assay is cost-effective, coming in at 1/10th of the cost of using animals.

"When I work out the cost, if the cost is US$1,000 for using animals, which excludes the chemicals you have to use, this assay is US$100. Cheap, cheap, cheap. And that's complete — including the chemicals already in the assay," the scientist said.

Dr Williams started working on the assay while he was a lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of the West Indies 14 years ago. But it wasn't until he went to pursue post doctoral work in Germany that it was completed. His initial findings were published in the West Indian Medical Journal in 2008, but have now been developed further and are ready for scientists and researchers to access as needed.

The scientist said that a number of people around the world were already using the BSA assay.

"I never thought of it as a major breakthrough at the time," he confessed. "I wasn't looking at it in that light until so many people started using it, instead of animals. Every week, basically, for the past six months, people have been asking if they can use it," he said, adding that over 14 research institutions worldwide have so far used the assay for the development of drugs.

"This is very important, especially in countries like India where animals are not readily available for drug development," said Dr Williams.

Speaking to the toll of research on animals, the scientist said that there was no justification at the cellular level why animals should be used to develop drugs for human beings, and pointed out that sometimes the animals don't prove what researchers thought they would.

"If you consider that with a crude plant extract broken down into fractions or sub-groups, you may be dealing with about 50 compounds in each sub-group and each of those have to be tested by animals — 10 or 15 — and normally you have three sub-groups, so we're talking about hundreds of animals, for example, rats and mice, that will be replaced using this assay to select and develop anti-inflammatory drugs

"So this is a major breakthrough," he said, adding that his colleagues in Germany think it is worthy of a Nobel Prize.

Dr Williams is in the process of securing a patent for the assay.

Entomologist and plant pathologist Dr Erlinda Vasquez said the development was indeed a breakthrough because of its value to different fields of science. Vasquez spoke to the Observer from the Philippines where she works out of the Philippine Root Crop Research and Training Centre at Visayas State University at Baybay.

"I'm very glad that Dr Williams is being acknowledged for his efforts and research output because his assay has a lot of value, whether in toxicology or pharmacology... Using animals is costly, labour intensive and if you're using animals you can't screen a lot of compounds at once. With the BSA assay it cuts the research time down by 10. There's a significant reduction in labour, time, effort," she said.

Acting executive director of the SRC Hawthorne Watson also praised Williams' work. He declined putting a figure on the BSA assay, but said that the potential savings could be great, both in terms of money and animal life.

"It's always a pleasure to know that one of our local scientists came up with a breakthrough, and it doesn't matter if he is resident at the SRC or elsewhere in Jamaica," he said. "Dr Williams is a brilliant and experienced researcher. He has a lot of ideas which he explores with great vigour."

Using the potential impact of the BSA assay on the field of science in general and medicine in particular as a launching pad, Watson said that there were a number of other Jamaican scientists who were making significant contributions to science on the global stage. He referenced John Ewing — who has patented a thin form of plastics used in golf balls and food storage — and Robert Rashford, an electronics engineer with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the US.

"I applaud the efforts of our musicians — Bob Marley, Peter Tosh. I applaud Usain (Bolt), Veronica (Campbell-Brown), the little dynamo (Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce) and the whole gamut of our athletes, but I don't think enough is being done to recognise the contribution of our scientists," he said. "Science technology innovation is not yet a sexy thing."

Dr Williams is also pursuing cancer research involving the compound extracted from the Guinea Hen Weed compound, scientifically known as Dibenzyl Trisulphide or DTS.

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