The Caribbean region is estimated to have more than 11,000 species of plants on land and an additional 12,000 species in the Caribbean Sea and is one of the world’s thirty-six biodiversity hotspots (Miloslavich, Díaz et al. 2010). This wealth of plant and marine species makes the region ideal for the discovery of novel natural products (Demeritte and Wuest 2020). These small molecules, sometimes referred to as secondary metabolites, are synthesized mainly by bacteria, fungi, and plants, and are not directly involved in the growth, development or reproduction of an organism. Many of these have been reported to be pharmaceutically relevant, exhibiting anti-pathogenic, anticancer, and anti-inflammatory activity.
Natural product research involves not only the discovery and characterization of novel bioactive compounds, but also the chemical synthesis of analogs of these novel compounds in an effort to enhance desired bioactivity. Many scientists have shown particular interest in the bioactivity of our marine species whose natural products have been found to be antibacterial, antifungal and active against cancers. One group of compounds, Jamaicamides, produced by marine cyanobacteria discovered in Hector Bay, Jamaica, have been found to have sodium channel blocking capabilities, a property of drugs used in the prevention of acute and chronic pain, cardiac arrhythmias, epilepsy, and bipolar disorder (Edwards, Marquez et al. 2004).
Natural products chemistry studies have been instrumental in the discovery of novel drugs. Secondary metabolites isolated from endemic Caribbean species have either been precursors to, or themselves been, the active ingredients of several drug candidates, including some of which have passed clinical trials (Demeritte and Wuest 2020). Trabectedin, for example, sold under the brand name Yondelisâ, an antitumor chemotherapy, was originally isolated from the Caribbean sea squirt mangrove tunicate, and was the first marine natural product approved for clinical use in cancer chemotherapy.
Much of the research resulting in the production of novel drugs from Caribbean-based natural products – from discovery to clinical trials – have been undertaken by foreign research institutions. This means that our unique experiences and needs as a region are often of little consequence in directing these studies, and our access to the research and products remain limited. In the Caribbean, we heavily rely on “bush medicine”, plant-based natural products mainly in the form of teas and oils, to help manage health related problems. These remedies form part of our oral traditions but are often not well documented or studied.
While we may have limited resources for research resulting in the upscale manufacturing of our natural products, we should consider taking strides to preserve and document our traditions as it relates to our use of herbal medicine. Our use of herbs has persisted for generations and has evolved to meet our specific needs, especially at times when our access to modern medicine has been limited. Further, concerted efforts should be made to protect our terrestrial and marine ecosystems, with special considerations for species endemic to region.
Promisingly, there are researchers at our universities committed to the study of Caribbean-based products, specifically secondary metabolites produced by plants and terrestrial microbes. Chemists in Trinidad for example, are identifying, isolating and characterizing the bioactivity of plants used in traditional medicine. In Jamaica, the Natural Products Institute (NPI) at UWI Mona, is a research facility dedicated to conducting scientific research on Caribbean-based natural products, with several of their ongoing projects focused of exploring compounds produced by endemic plants. Some of these projects delve into plants which are already used regionally in treating health conditions and these studies produce results that will either provide scientific justification for their use or serve to demystify myths.
It is worth hoping, that with the development of new techniques for research and manufacturing, we find sustainable ways in which to explore the drug discovery pipeline. Perhaps then our approach to medicine in the region will experience a unique shift in which the knowledge that has been passed on by our ancestors for generations is validated by science to provide treatments that are as familiar to us as they are effective and accessible.
Demeritte, A. and W. M. Wuest (2020). “A look around the West Indies: The spices of life are secondary metabolites.” Bioorg Med Chem 28(23): 115792.
Edwards, D. J., B. L. Marquez, L. M. Nogle, K. McPhail, D. E. Goeger, M. A. Roberts and W. H. Gerwick (2004). “Structure and Biosynthesis of the Jamaicamides, New Mixed Polyketide-Peptide Neurotoxins from the Marine Cyanobacterium Lyngbya majuscula.” Chemistry & Biology 11(6): 817-833.
Miloslavich, P., J. M. Díaz, E. Klein, J. J. Alvarado, C. Díaz, J. Gobin, E. Escobar-Briones, J. J. Cruz-Motta, E. Weil, J. Cortés, A. C. Bastidas, R. Robertson, F. Zapata, A. Martín, J. Castillo, A. Kazandjian and M. Ortiz (2010). “Marine biodiversity in the Caribbean: regional estimates and distribution patterns.” PLoS One 5(8): e11916.
Rochelle Carla Joseph is a Chemist/Chemical Engineer from Dominica. She is currently a PhD student whose overarching interest is metabolic engineering for the production of natural products. Her current research focuses on the development of gene editing tools for non-model bacteria. She enjoys reading and crafting in her spare time.