When pharmacologist Ravindra Ghooi learned in 1996 that his mother had terminal breast cancer, he began to investigate whether he could obtain morphine, in case she needed pain relief at the end of her life. But a morphine prescription in India at that time, even for the dying, was a rare thing: most states required four or five different licences to buy painkillers such as morphine, and there were harsh penalties for minor administrative errors. Few pharmacies stocked opioids and it was a rare doctor who held the necessary paperwork to prescribe them. Ghooi, who is now a consultant at Cipla Palliative Care and Training Centre in Pune, used his connections to ask government and industry officials if there was a straightforward way of obtaining morphine for his mother. “Everybody agreed to give me morphine,” he recalls, “but they said they’d give it to me illegally.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but when chemist Matthew Todd posted a request for help on The Synaptic Leap, a website devoted to open-source biomedical research, he was sowing the seeds for a rivalry between an open initiative and a contract-research organization hired by the World Health Organization to reach the same goal.
The aim of both projects, run in 2010, was to produce a safer, low-cost version of praziquantel, a treatment for the tropical parasitic infection schistosomiasis. Up until that point, the treatment contained two enantiomers (mirror-image versions of the molecule that have slightly different properties) of praziquantel. One enantiomer has no effect on the parasite, but gives the drug a bitter taste. Eliminating this undesirable form could reduce side effects and help more patients to complete their treatment. The pure drug needed to be affordable. Todd, who is at the University of Sydney in Australia, thought that an open project was the best way to achieve this. “Open is very well-suited for neglected diseases,” he says. “The pay-off of secrecy is not very large.” Continue reading
Packets of cannabis seeds line the shelves of legal grow shops in Madrid. Many carry labels reporting the percentage of sativa and indica, two types of cannabis. Breeders often label plants that produce a more exciting high as sativa and plants that provide a more mellow feeling as indica, suggesting that cross-breeding tailors that buzz. The conceit is widespread. Botanist Jonathan Page at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, says he sees the same at local grow shops.
For reasons that go beyond assessing the quality of the user experience, botanists such as Page are investigating the evolution and present-day diversity of cannabis. To do this, they must confront centuries-old taxonomic questions, including whether cannabis is one species, Cannabis sativa, with several subspecies or varieties, or if it is several distinct species, such as C. sativa, Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis. “It’s complicated taxonomically because of its intimate relationship with humans for long periods of time,” Page says. People have long bred cannabis as a source of fibre, food and oil — as well as for its mind-altering effects (see page S10). As governments relax cannabis laws, commercial growers want more clarity about the chemical properties and capabilities of the herb’s many varieties. In parallel, regulatory bodies trying to establish a legal framework want to be able to classify whether a given type of plant is for fibre (hemp) or recreational or medical use (marijuana).
In a green field outside Madrid, at the foot of the snow-covered Guadarrama mountain range, lies a sun-faded snail shell. Its opening sealed with a cap of dried mud, the shell contains the larva of a wild, solitary bee, together with its first meal of bee bread — a mixture of pollen and nectar. Entomology graduate student Daniel Romero picks up the shell and, concluding that it contains the nest of a mason bee, stores it in a clear plastic tube, labels the red cap with a marker, and closes it.
Back at the Complutense University of Madrid, Romero sets ten tubes of the nesting bees he collected on his professor’s desk. They are just a fraction of the hundreds of samples that he and his colleagues will gather during a four-year Spanish government-funded study of how artificial chemicals are affecting the biodiversity of wild pollinators and their immune and reproductive systems. In the warmth of the office, some of the young adults twitch and scratch at their now-crumbly mud doors. Researchers watch the young adult bees slowly emerge into their new world. When the air cools and the humans leave the room, the bees return to their pollen pillows. Unlike honeybees, solitary bees buzz to their own drum.
See an album of photos I took while reporting this story.