Spring in your step edition

Environment - Leonie Joubert

Dosing Up

No matter how clever modern science is, it can’t replace the medicine nature gives us, free and gratis. So we’d allow the diversity of life to dwindle at our peril, writes Leonie Joubert.

A truckload of Argentinean soil would be worth more than its weight in gold, if it had the right fungus in it. Because it’s a soil fungus from that part of the New World that’s given us the latest antibiotic used to target drug-resistant bacteria. And hey, when it comes down to it, I’d rather have the drug than the gold if my life depended on it.

We were plucking enzymes, microbes and other organisms for medical use from nature long before we’d developed laboratories that could synthesize these for modern treatments. Even now, over half of the 150 most prescribed drugs in the US were sourced in nature, according to Dr Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Trust and author of Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature’s Healing Secret. These drugs alone are estimated to be worth US$80 billion.

We’ve found antibiotics in fungi in the soils of tropical forests, cancer treatments and anti-virals in marine sponges, mild painkillers in the bark of trees and according to the NGO Rainforest Rescue, “a quarter of the active ingredients used in modern cancer-fighting drugs are derived from rainforest species”. A further 70 percent of the 3 000 plants identified by the United States National Cancer Institute as being active against cancer are found in rainforests.

“Two powerful anti-cancer drugs – vincristine and vinblastine – are derived from the rosy periwinkle plant in Madagascar,” the NGO says.

What’s more, there’s an Alzheimer’s treatment undergoing clinical trials that came from a marine worm; an anti-asthma treatment from a sea sponge off the coast of Papua New Guinea; another sponge in Indonesian waters is being tested for its efficacy against malaria, HIV and tuberculosis; and a soft coral off Tsitsikamma may have anti-inflammatory qualities.



And that’s before we’ve even considered the foods that we eat every day, adopted by the industrial agriculture production line, but which come from nature’s own genetic blueprint: maize from Mexico, wheat from the Middle East, potatoes from the Andes, sorghum and millet from the Horn of Africa. There’s even the Southern African desert plant (hoodia) that quells appetite, if you decide you’ve had too much of a good thing in the food department.

The problem is that we’re laying waste to the diversity in forests, coral reefs, savannas and the like, before many of them have been thoroughly studied for more potential treatments (not that that should be the only reason to conserve nature). Plotkin estimates that modern science is losing one potential drug every two years, at the current rate of extinction amongst the planet’s animal and plant species – this, even as we’ve only touched the surface of the medicinal potential of nature. We’ve surveyed less than 1 percent of all tropical plants, says Plotkin.

There must be untold medicinal possibilities hidden away in the untouched forests, reefs and soils of our planet. It would be cruelly ironic if we wiped out this potential medical chest before we could use it to save ourselves.




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