Rainforest, Pharmacy to the World

Why should we in the United States be concerned about the destruction of distant tropical rainforests? Because rainforest plants are complex chemical storehouses that contain many undiscovered biodynamic compounds with unrealized potential for use in modern medicine.

June 21, 2006 - By Melissa Mathis, Greenspan

The wilderness holds answers to questions that man has not yet learned to ask.

-Nancy Newhall

TB Announced   A new study found that 46% of the Amazon plants studied fight TB!

Fair Trade Biodiversity  Twelve nations are cooperating to ensure that corporate profits from exploiting rare species are shared by the developing nations where they originated.

ARPA (The Amazon Region Protected Areas program)  preserves a full third of the Amazon rainforest.

TUMUCUMAQUE    (too-moo-koo-mah-kay) was the first ARPA reserve. It's four times the size of Yellowstone.

Email Campaigns:  Sending letters and emails to elected officials is one way to let them know your preferences regarding U.S. involvement in protecting the environment.

THE AMAZON   is home to over half of the world's species. It's the lungs of the planet, and the pharmacy of the world.

McDonald's and the Amazon

Hamburger Consumption Spurs Amazon Deforestation

Ohio Nun Killed Protecting the  Amazon Rainforest 

Second Activist killed in Brazil 

LOST TRIBE  A new tribe was discovered in the Amazon, and a logging company is threatening their survival.

Pressing Issue  How can we look our children and grandchildren in the eye, and say that when we were kids we loved the pandas, lions and whales, but then as grownups we destroyed them?

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Harvard's Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson estimates that we are losing 137 plant, animal, and insect species every single day. That's 50,000 species a year!

Why should we in the United States be concerned about the destruction of distant tropical rainforests? Because rainforest plants are complex chemical storehouses that contain many undiscovered biodynamic compounds with unrealized potential for use in modern medicine. We can gain access to these materials only if we study and conserve the species that contain them.

Rainforests currently provide half of today's medicines. These include pharmaceutical and medicinal medicines. 70% of the plants found to have anti-cancer properties are found only in the rainforest. Rainforests and their immense undiscovered biodiversity hold the key to unlocking tomorrow's cures. How many cures have we already lost?

Two drugs we have, we obtained from a rainforest plant known as the Madagascar periwinkle, which is now extinct in the wild due to deforestation. They have increased the chances of survival for children with leukemia from 20 percent to over 90 percent. Think about it; 9 out of 10 children are now saved rather than 9 of 10 children dying from leukemia. How many children have been spared, and how many more will continue to be spared because of this single rainforest plant? What if we failed to discover this one important plant among millions before it was extinct? When our remaining rainforests are gone their rare plants and animals will be lost, and so will their cures be lost.

No one can challenge the fact that we are largely dependent on plants for treating our aliments. Almost 90% of people in developing countries still rely on traditional medicine. In the United States, some 25% of prescriptions are filled with drugs whose active ingredients are extracted or derived from plants. Sales of these drugs in the U.S. amounted to over $5 billion a year. Worldwide sales of these plant-based drugs are estimated at $40 billion a year. Still even more drugs are derived from animals, insects and microorganisms.

The U.S. National Cancer Institute has identified over 3,000 plants that are active against cancer cells, and 70% of these plants are found only in rainforests. Over 25% of the active ingredients in today's cancer-fighting drugs come from rainforest organisms. Among the thousands of species of rainforest plants that have not been analyzed are many more thousands of unknown plant chemicals. Many of these chemicals have evolved to protect plants from pathogens. These plant chemicals may help us in our own struggle with constantly evolving pathogens such as bacteria-resistant pathogens in tuberculosis, measles, and HIV. Experts now believe that if there is a cure for cancer or AIDS, it will probably be found in the rainforest.

Today over 100 pharmaceutical companies and several branches of the US government, including giants like Merck, Abbott, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Monsanto, SmithKline Beecham, and the National Cancer Institute are engaged in plant-based research projects for possible drugs and cures for viruses, infections, cancer, and AIDS. Most of this research is currently taking place in rainforests. This new pharmacological industry is called bioprospecting, and it has sprung up from an unlikely confederacy: plant-collectors, anthropologists, ecologists, conservationists, natural product companies and nutritional supplement manufacturers, AIDS and cancer researchers, executives in the world's largest drug companies, and native indigenous shamans. They are part of a radical experiment to preserve the world's rainforests by showing how much more valuable they are standing than cut down. It's a race against a clock whose every tick means another acre of charred forest. Yet it is also a race that pits one explorer against another. Those who score the first big hit in bioprospecting will secure wealth and a piece of scientific immortality.

In November 1991 Merck Pharmaceutical Company announced a landmark agreement to obtain samples of wild plants for drug-screening from Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute (INBio). Spurred by this and other biodiversity prospecting ventures, interest in the commercial value of plant genetic and biochemical resources is growing today. While the Merck-INBio agreement provides a fascinating example of a private partnership that contributes to rural economic development, rainforest conservation, and technology transfer, virtually no precedent exists for national policies and legislation to govern and regulate what amounts to a brand new industry.

Since wealth and technology are as concentrated in the North as biodiversity and poverty are in the South, the question of equity is particularly hard to answer in ways that satisfy everyone with a stake in the outcome. The interests of bioprospecting corporations are not the same as those of people who live in biodiversity hot spots. Many of them are barely making a living. As the search for wild species whose genes can yield new medicines and better crops gathers momentum, these rich habitats also sport more and more bioprospectors. If done properly, bioprospecting can bolster both economic and conservation goals while underpinning the medical and agricultural advances needed to combat disease and sustain growing populations.

Indigenous people discovered the majority of our current plant-derived drugs. Bioprospectors now are working side by side with rainforest tribal shamans and herbal healers to learn the wealth of their plant knowledge.


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TB Announced   New study found that 46% of the Amazon plants studied fight TB!

Fair Trade Biodiversity  Twelve nations are cooperating to ensure that corporate profits from exploiting rare species are shared by the developing nations where they originated.

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