Friday, April 1, 2011

Thomas Eisner: Chemistry, Ecology, and Conservation

Thomas Eisner, a professor of entomology at Cornell University, died on March 25, 2011.  Eisner was both a scientific and a conservation pioneer.   He helped found the field of chemical ecology, which studies how organisms use the natural chemicals they synthesize, whether in communication, defense, or predation.  Later, he helped the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica ("INBio") negotiate an agreement with pharmaceutical company Merck & Co., Inc., under which INBio received a $1,000,000 payment and $135,000 in scientific laboratory equipment in exchange for bioprospecting for, and preparing chemical extracts of, promising natural chemicals from Costa Rican rainforest organisms.  In addition, the agreement promises Costa Rica a modest royalty should any of these natural chemicals form the basis for a commercially successful drug.

Although no such drug has yet emerged from this relationship, the Merck-INBio agreement established a new paradigm in bioprospecting, in which developing countries with abundant biodiversity control access to that valuable natural resource through negotiated agreements.  Subsequent biodiversity access agreements increased both in ambition and legal sophistication.  For example, the multinational pharmaceutical company Novartis AG entered into an access agreement with the Brazilian Association for the Sustainable Use of the Biodiversity of Amazonia ("BIOAMAZONIA") under whose terms BIOAMAZONIA received an upfront payment of $4,000,000 in return for supplying Novartis with 30,000 promising biological samples over a three-year period;  furthermore, should any of these samples lead to a drug that receives both patent protection from the United States Patent and Trademark Office and regulatory approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration, Novartis will pay BIOAMAZONIA a one-percent royalty on any profits.

Professor Eisner embodied a rare dual genius that combined pure scientific study of biodiversity with creative, practical, and effective actions to conserve the sources of that biodiversity.  Many in the fields of biology and conservation mourn his death.