Cross-Border Collaboration


Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Leslie Boyer

U.S. and Mexican Researchers Team Up to Save Lives

Scorpions are not stopped by the U.S.-Mexican border. Neither are the many U.S. and Mexican academics who collaborate to study those venomous creatures and many other issues that the two countries share.

Tens of thousands of individuals are stung by scorpions on both sides of the border each year. If they are lucky, they are saved from severe illness or possible death by injection of an effective antivenom in time.

In 1999 University of Arizona Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Pathology Leslie Boyer, then pregnant with her daughter, was invited by the National Geographic Society to tag along on a National Geographic expedition with a film crew in Mexico, hot on the trail of a Mexican antivenom that was saving lives in Mexico, yet was unknown in the United States.

The expedition wrapped up in Cuernavaca, in the laboratory of scientists at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM). There Boyer witnessed an apparent miracle: as a mouse lay rigid, dying from scorpion venom, Boyer watched with amazement as one of the scientists injected the mouse with antivenom. Miraculously, within minutes, it was well on the way to full recovery.

Later, Boyer began speaking with one of the scientists, Alejandro Alagón Cano, a professor at the Biotechnology Institute of the Department of Molecular Medicine and Bioprocesses at UNAM. They began to realize that by combining their respective skills, they could yield results neither could on his or her own.

Alagón, who had won the 2005 Mexican National Prize for Arts and Sciences, the highest distinction awarded by the Mexican government, knew how to produce the Mexican antivenom in a very pure form and had connections to manufacturers in Mexico. Alagón could rapidly test, develop, and guide the manufacture of antivenoms.

Boyer was a Harvard Medical School-trained doctor and clinical researcher with connections to the U.S. health regulatory bureaucracy and who was also director of the University of Arizona's Venom Immunochemistry, Pharmacology, and Emergency Response (VIPER) Institute. She could help supervise top-tier clinical trials of drugs in the United States and guide them through federal regulatory hurdles there.

After initially publishing research findings in the New England Journal of Medicine, they realized a remarkable opportunity presented itself: what if they could obtain the most rigorous regulatory acceptance for the antivenom, which would be called Anascorp®, in the United States. If so, the drug would receive recognition as a world leader.

In August 2011 Anascorp® became the first Mexican drug to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, one manufactured at Instituto Bioclon in Mexico City. It has stimulated a collaboration between Boyer and Alagón that continues to the present and has expanded to other venomous animals research.

"They had something we wanted and we had something they wanted," Boyer explains. "It's hard to be a brilliant Mexican professor and get attention in the world. They don't have a process that is highly regulated so you can't tell how good they are. So they had the technology and science. And we had the media attention and the bureaucracy, which is one of America's biggest assets. We have an FDA with an international reputation as having the highest standards on earth, the highest hurdle they could jump. If they could jump through that hoop and be approved under the FDA's regulations, it would be the first time they had had that type of recognition."

"I think that this collaboration has been very interesting," Alagón says. "As a basic researcher, I am always trying to answer a question. Many basic researchers try to find significant questions to answer. Sometimes the question a basic researcher asks doesn't have practical application and is meaningless in terms of immediate impact of society at the time doing research, which still can be good. But with my interaction with the University of Arizona, I now don't have to invent the questions. Instead, the questions come from the real world."

This is just one academic research partnership discussed in the article, "Shared Solutions (1mb Adobe PDF)," by David Tobenkin in the May/June 2013 issue of International Educator.

May/Jun 2013

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