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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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Glories of the Green Medicine Chest (Bitter Pill–Part 2)

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 7, 2012

The track record for green medicines had previously been almost miraculous. Though neither doctors nor patients generally realize it, about half the drugs they depend on come directly or indirectly from the natural world. The list starts with aspirin (now produced synthetically but first found in the bark of the willow tree) and includes all the antibiotics, almost all the anticancer drugs, and many of the leading cardiovascular medicines, among others.

The medicine chest is packed with stories of the most unlikely species transformed ingeniously into lifesavers. Gila monster saliva, for instance, might seem to be worth less than spit. But a hormone in the saliva has become the model for a drug used to treat type 2 diabetes, an epidemic disease that now afflicts 26 million Americans (with another 79 million considered prediabetic). Cone snails deep in the Indo-Pacific prey on fish by jabbing them with a venom toxic enough to kill a person. But a compound in that venom is nowa painkiller that’s 1,000 times more effective than morphine, without being addictive.

At times the list of past discoveries from the natural world can seem like a one-upmanship contest, with each new product even more improbable than the one before:  The basis for the entire class of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins?  A fungus from an orange peel.  The standard tool for testing the purity of high tech medical devices?  An extract from the blood of horseshoe crabs.  The key ingredient in every DNA cloning and sequencing procedure in the world?  A bacterium fished out of the mud at a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park (which, like other habitats, has not shared in the profits).

One possible reason the discovery process has stumbled lately is that government agencies (including the U.S. National Park Service) have become far more aggressive about negotiating access and benefit-sharing terms with researchers.  Particularly in the developing world, these negotiations tend to be shaped by resentment over past “biopiracy” and uncertainty about fair market value for access to genetic resources.

(to be continued)

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