Researchers from Griffith University’s Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery have returned from the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve with new flora samples that may one day be used to fight the world’s most serious diseases.

Within the 135,570-hectare reserve at Cape York, researchers Dr Ngoc Pham, Associate Professor Rohan Davis, Dr Ian Hayward and Associate Professor George Mellick spent a week collecting samples they hope will contribute to cures for cancer and other infectious and neurodegenerative diseases.

The Eskitis team brought back 15 flora samples to add to Nature Bank, a collection of more than 45,000 samples of plants and marine invertebrates from tropical Queensland, Tasmania, China, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

The new inclusions range from moss and fern found in a melaleuca swamp, to orchids, rare lilies and a tree with a trunk resembling tiger stripes found growing by rare bauxite springs that deliver some of the purest water on the planet into the Wenlock River.

Associate Professor Rohan Davis says the reserve is also home to vulnerable species such as the rainforest plant Calophyllum bicolor.

“This species of rainforest plant would be very interesting to look at from a medicinal chemistry perspective,” he says.

Calophyllum is a plant genus known to produce a number of significant bioactive compounds, some of which have anti-HIV, anti-cancer and anti-microbial activities.”

Seasonal visits

The first of what will become seasonal visits to the reserve came about thanks to an agreement between the world-leading Eskitis Institute and Australia Zoo’s Mrs Terri Irwin AM.

In 2007, the Queensland Government handed Terri the pristine parcel of land to manage as a living legacy to her late husband’s conservation work.

“There’s been the discovery of an entirely new ecosystem here and new species of plants, so we’re excited to see what Eskitis will find as these visits unfold,” she says, speaking from the reserve’s Camp Coolibah base where each year she brings daughter Bindi, 16, son Robert, 10, and Australia Zoo staff for crocodile research.

Now a member of the Eskitis Foundation Board, Terri is thrilled the first batch of samples from the reserve will be processed and added to a library already containing more than 200,000 natural product fractions ready for high throughput screening against disease.

“The thought of the plants here having the potential to offer better treatment or even cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s, malaria, Alzheimer’s and different types of cancers … it’s so exciting because I’m really about that mix of conservation and wildlife and humans,” she says.

“It’s so beautiful here and, as we’ve learned over the past seven years since we were given this land in Steve’s honour, it’s also extraordinarily unique.

“This place has 35 different ecosystems, from scrub to relic rainforest, and if Eskitis can find these special things to help treat people, it will be wonderful.”

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