22. There May Be A Cure—Up There in the Rain Forest

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Source: PITTSBURGH POST GAZETTE Date: 1/4/95; “Cures lure druggists to rain forest”; Author: Dan Wagner

SYNOPSIS: Scientists in the United States are exhilarated because, after years of scavenging the Asian rain forests for magic bullets, they are now beginning to turn up promising leads in the search for medical treatments from trees and plants.

Environmentalists are excited by the prospect that important pharmaceutical discoveries could provide a financial incentive to preserve rain forests that one day may provide a cure for AIDS, various cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, or diabetes. If any of these new “discoveries” of rain-forest plants for Western medicine are to ever come to fruition, the world’s major pharmaceutical companies will have to cooperate.

However, with tropical forests vanishing at an alarming rate, scientists fear that with every tree that disappears, so might the cure for AIDS or cancer.

In fact, if the current rate of logging in rain forests continues, all but a few samples of the world’s forests will be gone by the year 2040. However, the devastation continues; on 8/28/95, wire services reported that negotiations were underway to log 3.7 million acres of Cambodia’s dwindling forest cover.

In the search for natural cures, rain forests are considered the most promising natural environments for research because of the vast diversity of life that they shelter. More than half of the world’s estimated 250,000 species of plants live in tropical forests, yet less than ten percent have ever been tested for their ability to cure disease. Many of the species remain unknown to science, and few have been diagnosed for their full medicinal potential. However, Amazonian Indians use hundreds of local plants to treat everything from herpes sores to lung diseases. Many of these medical conditions are still not sufficiently treated and cured by modern drugs.

In the past 30 years, many pharmaceutical researchers have shied away from the natural laboratory of the rain forest and have instead concentrated on synthetic chemistry as a source of medicines. While we should not underestimate the success of synthetic drugs, we must realize that not everything can be made in a chemistry laboratory. There is a great potential for natural products to be the source of new drugs. Even now, 25 percent of all pharmaceutical drugs in the United States come from plant-derived compounds. The National Cancer Institute, one of the largest plant-research facilities in the world, screens more than 40,000 natural substances each year for cancer, anti-tumor or AIDS use.

With the erosion of our environment and the vanishing culture of native peoples, it is a race against the clock to preserve the biological and cultural diversity that remains in the rain forests. The mass media need to spread the word that clear-cutting rain forests no longer is just about the trees, it’s about people, culture, ethics, and perhaps even life-saving medical discoveries.

SSU Censored Researcher: Tami Ward

COMMENTS: Other than the primary source cited above, there were few news stories concerning the impact of clear-cutting on possible pharmaceutical discoveries in the rain forests in 1995.

Most notably, among newspapers, the San Diego Union Tribune (7/5/95) reported on the efforts of a local resident who created Project Green Genes, a business venture designed to collect plant materials for DNA preservation, and a Los Angeles Times report (9/24/95) on environmentalists protesting Suriname’s plan to allow loggers at its rain forest.

However, the international edition of Time Magazine (10/30/95) featured an in-depth article on worldwide environ-mental issues focusing on the issue. The cover article, by Edward O. Wilson, a leading advocate of global conservation and the Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard, revealed that “more than 40 percent of all prescriptions dispensed by pharmacies in the U.S. are substances originally extracted from plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms.” He pointed out that less than one percent of all species and organisms have been examined for natural products that might lead to new medicines. The article also mentioned that the United States is one of the few nations that did not sign the Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by 156 nations and the European Union at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Ironically, one of the most informative articles published in 1995 about the potential cures to be found in the world’s rain forests was published in a trade publication, Chemical Marketing Reporter, on September 18.