Coibita / Isla Ranchería

Searching for a Cure:
45 New Reasons to Conserve Panama’s Coiba National Park

Imagine what happens when researchers looking for new cures for disease encounter a rich source of unique life forms in the ocean.  In Panama’s Coiba National Park scientists from Panama and the U.S. working together have discovered 45 new chemicals extracted from corals, sponges, fungi and bacteria that show great promise as cures for cancer and a wide range of tropical diseases.


The common language of life is chemical communication.  Our sense of taste, for example, gives us lots of information about whether something is safe to eat, nutritious, or poisonous. About 20 years ago, a scientist asking how plants protect themselves against the insects that eat their leaves at the Smithsonian’s research station on Barro Colorado Island and her husband, a chemist, realized that the process of discovering new drugs could be made much less expensive by listening to nature—by noticing which plants avoid being eaten by caterpillars, and looking for chemicals to fight diseases there.  Panama, as home to some of the most abundant regions of plant and animal life on Earth, is an ideal place for a groundbreaking research program in which local biologists increase their knowledge about and commitment to the natural resources of the country by participating directly in the drug discovery process.


Colonies of cyanobacteria, a rich source of chemicals to fight diseease.

Now the focus of the search for new chemicals has shifted to the marine organisms in Coiba National Park.  Because Panama had the foresight to conserve Coiba as a park in 2004, Coiba is spared some of the environmental pressures like overfishing and unplanned tourism development common along the world’s coastlines, and is still home to corals, tunicates, sponges, bacteria and fungi that are proving to be rich sources of information about natural chemicals. The cyanobacteria—also known as blue-green algae—have yielded Coibamide A, a compound extremely active against cancer cells, named for Coiba. Veraguamide A, an anti-cancer compound named after the Panamanian province of Veraguas and Santacruzmate, an anti-parasitic compound named after the island, Santa Cruz.

The resulting drug discovery program, called the Panama International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG), funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has worked closely with the Panamanian government to establish three different local laboratories: at the University of Panama, at the City of Knowledge (INDICASAT) and at the Smithsonian headquarters in Panama City and to train the Panamanian scientists who staff these facilities. U.S. academic partners working around Coiba currently include the Smithsonian, Scripps Oceanographic Institute, the University of California—Santa Cruz, Oregon State University and the University of Connecticut.

Researchers continue to study marine life and chemistry in Coiba National Park, both from the park headquarters administered by Panama’s environmental authority, ANAM, and from the Smithsonian facility on Isla Rancheria, also known as Coibita.

The Smithsonian is celebrating 100 years of tropical research in Panama, a collaboration made possible by Panama’s abundant life and the generosity of the Panamanian government and people.  STRI’s longstanding research platform in the tropics makes possible core advances in science and contributes to the sustainability of society.

Meet the Researchers

An ICBG team spent the week of February 13-18 based at the STRI facility in Rancheria (Coibita) collecting new samples from the park.

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