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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Losing the Drug that Could’ve Saved Your Kid’s Life (Save The Planet 4)

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 9, 2012

Look closely in the medicine cabinet, in fact, and what’s striking is just how pervasively nature has shaped our entire pharmaceutical repertoire.   Even aspirin was derived originally from the bark of the willow tree.  It’s also striking just how unpredictable and even downright weird this influence continues to be.

Who would have imagined, for instance, that a marine snail from the Philippines, Conus magus, would give us a new pain killer, Prialt, that lacks the terrible addictiveness of morphine—and yet is 1000 times more potent?

Who would have predicted that a bacterium found in the dirt on Easter Island would provide a powerful immune suppressant, rapamycin, that’s now routinely used in organ transplants and as a coating on heart stents?  (In experiments on mice, it also seems to have the potential to extend the lifespan of individuals already past middle age.)

Who would have figured that the Pacific yew tree, long considered a trash species, would become the source of the most successful modern drug, taxol, for treating cancers of the breast, ovaries, and if current experiments play out, perhaps also the prostate?

And once we get our minds around the astonishing healing power of these natural medicines, you start to wonder:  How come we don’t know more?  That is, if species are going extinct at a catastrophic rate, what life-altering products are we losing along the way?  There are an estimated 350,000 flowering plant species in the world, plus an ungodly number of insects, marine invertebrates, fungi, and bacteria—each equipped with a unique chemical arsenal of some kind.

At most 10 percent of the plants have been tested for their medical potential, says James Miller, PhD, vice president for science at the New York Botanical Garden, and even those have been tested against only a small number of diseases, mostly cancers.  The insects and other small species have hardly even been classified by science, much less tested for their potential usefulness.

So when a forest disappears, what may be disappearing at the same time is the drug that could have kept your hair from falling out, or your prostate from moving in where your bladder’s supposed to be.  We may be losing the drug that could have kept your eight-year-old from dying of a hospital infection, or your mom from fading into dementia.  You would think scientists and drug companies would be racing to make these discoveries and figure out what’s valuable before it vanishes.

Continued tomorrow, when I’ll talk more about looking at traditional medicines.

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