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How The Bioprospecting Bonanza Went Bust (A Bitter Pill–Part 1)

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 6, 2012

This is a cover story I wrote for the spring issue of Conservation Magazine:

Twenty years ago this past October, environmentalists around the world celebrated a landmark deal between a major drug company, Merck, and Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute, INBio. Until then, the standard practice had been for drug companies to collect biological specimens anywhere they wanted, ship them home to study, and (if they were very lucky) develop one or two of them into miracle drugs—all without the source country ever being aware of it. But instead, Merck was now paying $1.1 million up front for bioprospecting rights and promising a royalty from any drugs that resulted.

For environmentalists, the best part of the deal was that a share of any payment would go to protect the habitat itself. The rest of the world was furiously demolishing forests and wetlands, converting them to short-term cash crops like soybeans, hamburgers, and shrimp. But suddenly, a Fortune 500 company was putting money behind the idea that nature intact might have a higher value. One economic analysis even put a number on it: bioprospecting for drugs would increase the value of some habitats by more than $3,600 an acre.

Other economists warned the added value was likely to be no more than $25, but the dream of earning “green gold” by tapping “the mother lode in Mother Nature” quickly spread worldwide. In Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity for the first time recognized the need to preserve a multitude of habitats and species as a matter of both international law and the good of humanity. It also stipulated that a fair share of the benefits should go to the countries where this diversity flourishes. It seemed like the beginning of a new era in drug discovery, international development, and habitat preservation alike.

It was also too good to be true. In 2008, Merck quietly abandoned its search for new drugs from the natural world, shifting its attention to synthetic compounds and vaccines instead. Then last year, as if to mark the anniversary of its Costa Rican folly, the company gave away its entire library of natural compounds—100,000 extracts representing 60 percent of all known plant genera, ready to be screened for the next big miracle drug. And it wasn’t just Merck: Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and most other Big Pharma companies have also abandoned the direct search for drugs from the natural world. “We lived under the assumption that the rainforest was full of medicinally useful compounds like vincristine,” says James Miller, vice president for science at the New York Botanical Garden. Derived from a plant in Madagascar, the rosy periwinkle, that drug had turned leukemia and lymphoma into survivable diseases. “And nobody found the next vincristine.”

Miller holds out hope that drugs from the natural world may yet have their day. But bioprospecting since the Merck deal has so far failed to produce a single new blockbuster drug. Instead of the widely anticipated golden age of drug discovery, new drug approvals over the past decade have sunk to a 25-year low. Nor has any major drug contributed revenues to the preservation of the habitat from which it was originally derived. On the contrary the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species says 64 plant species are currently threatened by overharvesting for medicinal uses.

What went wrong?  (to be continued)

One Response to “How The Bioprospecting Bonanza Went Bust (A Bitter Pill–Part 1)”

  1. Evan Griswold said

    Maybe just as well that the drugs aren’t being produced. There’s a contradiction here. More drugs save more people which means a larger population living longer and longer lives. We are 7 billion and growing and destroying habitat at an accelerating rate. It always seemed sad that the best argument for saving habitat was because it might contain some miracle drug which would help save our sorry rear-ends.

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