LONDON — Xenova Group plc, of Slough, which focuses on the discovery and development of small-molecule drugs from microorganisms and plants, said it will take part in a research program that will explore the biodiversity of the Chiapas region of southern Mexico, with the long-term goal of developing new therapeutic agents. The work will be carried out in collaboration with the local Mayans, who practice an ancient system of herbal medicine in which hundreds of plant species are utilized.

The Tzeltal- and Tzotzil-speaking people of the central highlands of Chiapas define illness by describing their symptoms, which are then treated using a complex understanding of herbal healing passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.

The research program is funded by a grant from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups Programme of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Xenova subsidiary Xenova Discovery will be working with the University of Georgia, in Athens, and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, San Cristobal de Las Casas, in Chiapas, Mexico.

The consortium aims to conduct a medical ethnobiology and biodiversity inventory of the highland region of Chiapas, which covers about one-third of the state.

Xenova Discovery will carry out the chemical profiling of the flora of the Chiapas, with special emphasis on the plants used by the local people in their system of herbal medicine. Fungi and actinomycetes, especially those associated with the rare or endemic plants of the region, will also be isolated and fermented.

Libraries of extracts and compounds will then be prepared from selected plants and microbial fermentations using techniques developed by Xenova. These will increase the novelty and diversity of the company's NatChem library.

The researchers are currently awaiting the completion of negotiations and agreements with the Mexican government before the work proceeds. *