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Chemistry International
Vol. 24, No. 3
May 2002


IOCD: 20 Years of Building Capacity in Chemistry in Developing Countries

by Jean-Marie Lehn, Elkan R. Blout, and Robert H. Maybury

The International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development (IOCD) is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its founding by awarding the Pierre Crabbé-IOCD Prize, in honor of its founder, the late Pierre Crabbé. Over the years, Crabbé and his successors have managed to create and maintain specific and practical activities, provide vital technical services, and deliver promising results. Now rich with experience, this organization is planning for the road ahead.

In 1981, Pierre Crabbé, a Belgian chemist working at UNESCO in Paris, called together a group of distinguished scientists from 15 countries to discuss scientific research in developing countries. He had joined the UNESCO staff after years of creative research in steroid chemistry with Carl Djerrasi at the Syntex company in Mexico. Their work had culminated in the synthesis of the first steroid oral contraceptive, the now well-known birth control pill.

The years of working in Mexico had opened Crabbé’s eyes to the many barriers that hinder the efforts by scientists in developing countries to carry on research, such as inadequate laboratory equipment, a lack of up-to-date books and journals, and long periods of isolation from mainstream scientific activities. His vision of how these barriers might be lowered was to engage scientists from developing countries in collaborative research with scientists from industrialized countries.

Front row: M. James Cosentino, Jean-Marie Lehn (President), Robert Maybury (Executive Director) Back row: Jacques Perié, Walter Benson, Fred Opperdoes, Stephen Matlin, Lester Mitscher

Crabbé gave concreteness to his vision by bringing a group of scientists to Paris, where they formed the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development (IOCD). A charter and bylaws were drafted and deposited with the Belgian Ministry of Justice, and officers were appointed as follows: President, the late Glenn T. Seaborg, a Nobel Laureate of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory; Vice President and Treasurer, Elkan R. Blout, Dean of Harvard School of Public Health; and Director, Pierre Crabbé.

The IOCD initially formed two scientific working groups and placed them at the core of IOCD. The Working Group on Fertility Regulation, headed by Dr. Josef Fried of the University of Chicago, linked specialists in the chemistry of fertility regulation with chemists in developing countries in order to synthesize new compounds to be tested as antifertility drugs. The Working Group on Tropical Diseases, chaired by Dr. Sydney Archer of the Renssalear Institute, linked specialists in synthetic organic chemistry with chemists in developing countries, with the aim of synthesizing compounds to be tested as chemotherapeutic agents for the treatment of tropical diseases.

Under the inspired leadership of Pierre Crabbé, these working groups launched vigorous collaborative research with generous funding from donor agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the Mellon Foundation, and the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. They set high expectations in their work, aimed to build research capacity among the scientists in developing countries, and sought to make substantive contributions to the world body of scientific knowledge. Dr. Pino Benagiano, a WHO official at that time, commented that IOCD’s Working Group on Fertility Regulation in the Male had "unique status" in the global search for an effective male fertility regulator.

This promising early period of IOCD came to an abrupt and tragic halt in mid-1987 when Pierre Crabbé was struck and killed by a car in the street near his home in Brussels. The IOCD Executive Committee was confronted with the need to find a person who could quickly take up Crabbé’s work and maintain the momentum of IOCD’s activities. Their search brought them to Dr. Robert Maybury, a chemist recently retired from 20 years with UNESCO. He accepted the IOCD’s invitation to become the executive director, bringing a wide range of contacts built up during his many years of service in the field.

Maintaining the Momentum of IOCD’s Program (1987 to Present)

One of Maybury’s first tasks was to establish the Working Group on Plant Chemistry, with Sir Leslie Fowden, director of the Rothamsted Experimental Station in England, as its chairman. The working group focused its capacitybuilding efforts on convening workshops for natural-products chemists in developing countries. The members of the working group—outstanding specialists from industrialized countries—provided instruction in relevant laboratory techniques to selected natural-products chemists from countries in the region where the workshops convened. The first workshop convened for one week in 1990 in Nairobi, Kenya. Twelve natural-products chemists from East African countries had an opportunity to learn selected, simple bioassay techniques: the brine-shrimp toxicity test, assays for antisickling, the potato-disc bioassay, and antimicrobial screening. The second such workshop was held in 1992 in Ghana with participants from West African countries, and the third in 1994 in Uruguay for South American participants. In 1994, Dr. Kurt Hostettmann, director of the Institute of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, became chairman. He created a new international symposium—focused on the medicinal plants of a particular geographic region—that was held along with the workshop on bioassay techniques, but which was open to scientists from throughout the world.

An IUPAC-IOCD Working Party has organized workshops, in many different countries, that provide analytical chemists and laboratory managers with up-to-date information and methods pertaining to environmental analytical chemistry.

In 1992, in response to increasing requests from African natural-products chemists for chemical and biological analyses, IOCD invited the directors of several well-equipped African laboratories to a meeting to dis - cuss ways to respond to these requests. IOCD realized that although no one laboratory possessed all of the sophisticated instruments needed for the full range of requested analyses, collectively they did. In response, the group of directors set up the Network for Analytical and Bioassay Services in Africa (NABSA) and selected Dr. Berhanu Abegaz of the University of Botswana to be coordinator. Initially, IOCD provided financial assistance, but now other donors are assisting NABSA.

In 1997, when Dr. Sidney Archer—the original leader of the Working Group on Tropical Diseases— passed away, Dr. Fred Opperdoes of the Research Unit for Tropical Diseases in Brussels assumed the role of chairman. He introduced a highly innovative change in the group’s program by arranging for the admission of IOCD to observer status in the European Union’s cooperative research program known as COST (Cooperation in Science and Technology). This status enables IOCD to invite several younger research scientists from developing countries to participate in the annual COST congresses on tropical diseases. IOCD covers the full cost of their travel, room, and board. These scientists have opportunities to present research reports and to explore possible research collaboration with leading specialists attending the congresses.

Under Maybury’s leadership, IOCD added two environmental programs. In 1993, it signed an agreement with IUPAC to form the Joint Working Party on Environmental Analytical Chemistry. Dr. Walter R. Benson, a retired U.S. Food and Drug Administration scientist, became the program’s chairman. The Joint Working Party has organized workshops, in many different countries, that provide analytical chemists and laboratory managers with up-to-date information and methods pertaining to environmental analytical chemistry.

The second program, the Biotic Exploration Fund, was created in 1996 with a grant from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Based on an idea of Dr. Thomas Eisner of Cornell University, the program helps developing countries introduce bioprospecting programs using biodiversity resources. Because bioprospecting often involves a country’s indigenous peoples who are the guardians of its biodiversity resources, IOCD prudently adopted a Policy on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing to guide its work of promoting bioprospecting. This put IOCD in full compliance with the U.N.’s 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. IOCD scientists have to date collaborated with responsible groups in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Guatemala, in making plans to eventually implement bioprospecting. The chairman of the Biotic Exploration Fund, Dr. Charles Weiss, was formerly the science and technology advisor at the World Bank and is now a full professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C.

With funds from UNESCO, IOCD recently set up the project Books for Development. Through this project, IOCD collects scientific books and arranges for their shipment to university libraries in African countries. Dr. James Cosentino, vice chair of the IOCD Working Group on Medicinal Chemistry, initiated and continues to direct the project. He accepts books from many sources, but has also reached agreement with university libraries in Pennsylvania, USA, to donate their unneeded books.

IOCD Starts Along the Road Ahead

In addition to marking the 20th anniversary of IOCD’s founding by awarding the Pierre Crabbé-IOCD Prize, we as IOCD’s officers also see this as an opportune time to give thought to the future of IOCD’s program. This requires looking back as well as ahead and seeking answers to such questions as: What improvements do we need to consider making in our ongoing activities? Is there an unexplored potential of IOCD? What new directions in the program should we consider in unlocking this potential?

IOCD scientists have to date collaborated with responsible groups in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Guatemala, in making plans to eventually implement bioprospecting.

We will pursue this search for answers through a three-part strategy. The first part calls for a critical analysis of IOCD’s 20-year record of capacity building among scientists in developing countries, thereby discerning which activities were clear successes and which had shortcomings. The strategy’s second part requires our sincere effort to seek the views of the scientists in developing countries with whom we wish to work, asking them to point out problems they face and asking them how IOCD can help them find solutions. As the third part of this strategy, we intend to consult with the two international organizations with which we are affiliated —IUPAC, of which we are an Associated Organization and the International Foundation for Science (IFS), of which we are a member organization —about possible collaboration in the deliberations on our future. Both organizations have extensive international experience in responding to the needs of scientists in developing countries.

The interactions we have had to date with IUPAC, which have been useful but limited, are nevertheless indicative of the benefits we can expect from broader collaboration. A particularly useful interaction is our cosponsorship with IUPAC of the Joint IOCD/IUPAC Working Party for Environmental Analytical Chemistry. We found IUPAC receptive to our repeated requests for funds in support of the workshops. In regard to these workshops, we believe closer collaboration with IUPAC could prove most beneficial in the study of two workshop-related issues.

The first arises from the decision of all of our working groups to adopt the workshop as the modus operandi for its capacity-building efforts. Our original approach had been to establish collaborative research with scientists in developing countries. We are confident that collaboration with IUPAC would greatly assist us in developing a rationale for turning to the workshops as a way to build capacity.

The second issue concerns the need to supplement the feedback we seek from workshop participants on such matters as topics to be covered, time required to cover the topics, and appropriate instructional methods and aids (lectures, videos, books, computer programs, laboratory experiments, etc). In addition, we need information about local problems and needs of the countries where workshops are held. Collaboration with IUPAC could help us devise appropriate surveys and research studies for gathering this kind of information.

We have a similar interest in benefiting from the wealth of experience found in IFS by broadening our collaboration. We find IFS’s own words encouraging in this respect. In a recently completed study, IFS Member Organization: Revisiting and Revitalizing their Role, IFS makes clear its intentions to strengthen its collaboration with member organizations. IOCD can also benefit from IFS’ assessment of the impact of its activities on the achievements and career development of several hundred IFS grantees in Africa. We intend to consult with the recently appointed acting director of IFS, Dr. Jacques Gaillard, about the possibilities of broader collaboration.

Clearly, as IOCD continues to branch out in new directions, the spirit of its founder lives on. The Pierre Crabbé-IOCD Prize of USD 10 000 will be awarded to the person "who has made the most significant contribution during the past two years to the encouragement of better science and education in a developing country." The submission deadline was 31 March 2002.

Jean-Marie Lehn, IOCD President, Nobel Laureate, is professor at Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg, France; Elkan R. Blout is IOCD Vice President and Treasurer; and Robert H. Maybury is IOCD Executive Director. *E-mail: [email protected]

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