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Baldomero M. Olivera

Scientist's story of triumph over pain

RELIEF SWEPT the audience of mostly members of the science community following an exclusive presentation of Utah based Dr. Baldomero Olivera on the powerful painkilling substance from cone snail that abounds in the country's marine system. 

Dr. Olivera, Harvard Foundation's "Scientist of the Year" in 2007 guided the 200-plus spectators on the intricacies of such a pioneering research that has led to the development of Prialt, a drug that alleviates chronic pains on humans who had become tolerant to morphine. 

    He made the presentationva short and snappy overview of his works on Conus geographicus, a species of cone snail renowned for its lethal venom as keynote speaker during the National Science and Technology Week opening program at the Manila Hotel July 20. 

    Dr. Olivera started his work at the University of the Philippines' College of Medicine as a research associate professor. He and Dr. Lourdes Cruz, now a National Scientist, put together research studies on a biomolecules family they called conotoxins from Conus sp. marine snails collected from tropical waters of the Philippines. 

    The biomolecules are widely used in neuroscience research to­day in the study of ion channels and neuromuscular synapses. 

    "We would sit down for hours waiting for the mice to fall from the mesh cage," he told the keyed up crowd referring to a laboratory experiment process. 

    "Luly Cruz would call it the falling time, and we would note mouse falling." 

    According to him, he strongly believed that something use 
come out of the numerous experiments. Such belief goes back to his boyhood fascination with cone snails, which are sold in many town markets in the Philippines where he grew up. 

    Fascinated by the way the cone snail's hunt for food, Dr. Olivera painstakingly studied its predatory behavior. The cone snail hunts for food by laying low on the seawater waiting for a prey. It stretches out its proboscis or snout with its needle­like harpoon and, with lightning­quick strike, releases a toxic substance that paralyses its prey before devouring it. 

    He brought his work to the University of Utah where he is currently a distinguished professor of biology, to do further study on the subject and other cone snail species. 

    His main interest is in molecular mechanisms underlying nervous system function. 

    Consequently, this led to the discovery, along with his assistant Michael McIntosh, of ziconotide derived from the Conus magnus species and the main Prialt building block. 

    Meanwhile, Dr. Olivera also noted the seeming disconnection of research and development funding and actual R&D activities. He added that even developed countries are experiencing problems in providing for long term R&D funds.
    "It took 20 years to develop the drug Prialt, and people may be asking where is the drug which the government funded?" 

    Dr. Olivera is a corresponding member of the National Academy of Science and Technology and recipient of the Philippine Legion of Honor Rank of Grand Officer conferred by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo last January 14. 

- S&T Post XXVII, 3rd Quarter, 2009

Interviewed by: JOY M. LAZCANO, S&T Media Service