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Chimps at forefront of drug research

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Ugandan and French scientists have for months been observing the behaviour of a group of chimpanzees whose uncanny aptitude for self-medication could help their human cousins discover new drugs.

The great apes' ability to treat ailments by adjusting their diet has long been observed by scientists, including world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, but a project in Uganda's Kibale forest offers a unique opportunity for pharmaceutical research.

Sabrina Krief is a French veterinarian and professor at the Paris National History Museum.

"It's the first time that a chimpanzee observation aimed at discovering new medicine for humans is conducted within a scientific framework," she said.

John Kasenene, a professor of botanics at the University of Makerere, says Uganda is an ideal research ground for the scientists' double mission of better understanding the chimps' behaviour and using them as guides towards new molecules, and potentially new drugs.

"Uganda happens to be a country where eight of the 16 centres of endemic plants in the whole of Africa converge," he said.

The Ugandan university is conducting the project in partnership with the Natural History Museum in Paris, France's National Centre for Scientific Research and the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

Should a new drug be discovered through the project, the memorandum of understanding signed by all the partners includes a revenue-sharing clause.

Kibale's chimps

The Kibale equatorial forest, located about 250 kilometres west of the capital, Kampala, offers a high concentration of primates.

"There are very few research stations in the world where chimps have been so well accustomed to being in the presence of human observers," says Dr Krief, who heads the chimp project there.

The key moment in the observation is when one among the group of around 50 chimps she monitors gets sick.

The primate's choice of food during illness is packed with information that could lead the scientists to new discoveries.

At dawn, the researchers collect the animal's faeces from under that night's nest and carry out a range of analyses.

Traditional medicine

Dr Krief says a chimp named Yogi, suffering from intestinal worms, ingested aneilema aequinoctiale leaves in the morning and albizia grandibracteata bark in the evening.

Such plants have been used in human traditional medicine in some areas, and the Kibale team later confirmed through in vitro testing that they acted against parasites.

Another male chimpanzee who had been feverish and weak was observed eating only trichilia rubescens leaves for a whole day.

The plants' molecules, later isolated by the scientists in a laboratory, were found to be effective against malaria.

"These findings have allowed us to discover new plant molecules with significant properties against malaria, worms or tumours," Dr Krief said.

"It's quite rare to find active molecules but especially new molecules which might put us on the path to developing new pharmaceuticals."

Around 100 different kinds of plants have already been sampled in Kibale since the start of 2007.

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