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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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New Hope and More Hard Work (A Bitter Pill–Conclusion)

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 10, 2012

So where does all this leave drug research from the natural world?  Miller, Vederas, and a few small drug companies remain surprisingly optimistic.   That’s partly because the resource, though rapidly dwindling, is still out there waiting to be studied.  Miller estimates that medical researchers have tested only about 60,000 of the 400,000 or so plant species on Earth, and most of those against only a handful of diseases.  Extrapolating from the past success rate, he estimates that the plant species still waiting to be studied may contain upwards of 500 new botanical drugs.

Moreover, new technologies are making it easier to find them, according to Vederas.  Automated fractionation can now rapidly break down botanical specimens, thinning out the natural complexity to just three compounds per test well for high throughput screening.  Better methods also make it easier to synthesize these compounds, leading this past November to approval of a new breast cancer drug, Halaven, derived from a sponge found on the coast of Japan.  Researchers are also learning how to clone and work with individual genes in a plant.  At the University of California at Berkeley, for instance, Jay Keasling’s laboratory has recently overcome obstacles to transferring plant genes into bacteria and fungi, for synthetic production of the highly effective anti-malarial artemisinin, from the sweet wormwood plant.  He says commercial production will begin this Autumn.

At the same time, many of the remarkable biochemical functions attributed to plants and animals are turning out to come not from the organism itself, but from the bacteria and other microbes around it.  Instead of having to plant fields or cut down forests to get medicinal compounds, drug companies may soon be able to have these microbes brew them for us in fermentation vats.  Such improvements could lead to what Miller calls a “second renaissance” in natural products drug development.  Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, an early proponent of bioprospecting, adds, “Just because capitalism doesn’t get something right, doesn’t mean it’s not there.  We know that well these days.  You need to look everywhere, but I think the sweet spot lies somewhere between the medicine man and the microchip.”

This is not to say that blockbuster $1 billion-a-year drugs are ever going to produce a steady flow of cash for habitat preservation.   Big drug discoveries “are few and far between,” says George Frisvold, an agricultural and resource economist at the University of Arizona, “and there’s a long lag” from discovery to marketplace stardom.  Banking on that income is like staking your future on your kid’s chances of becoming the most valuable player in the NBA.  For instance, taxol, originally discovered in 1961 in the bark of a Pacific yew tree in Washington State, now earns $1.7 billion a year and saves the lives of thousands of women with breast, ovarian and other cancers.  If Washington officials back then had somehow negotiated a one percent royalty agreement, they might now be cashing a check for $17 million a year.  But it took 30 years for the drug to reach the marketplace, and it often looked as if it might never get there at all.  Meanwhile, would the distant chance that this might happen at some unknown time in the future have motivated the state to protect a single extra acre of habitat, or shut down part of its lucrative logging industry?

Governments everywhere “are continuously going to face all kinds of current pressures to convert the land,” says Frisvold, and the only thing likely to outweigh those pressures is some other “immediate tangible benefit.”  Bioprospecting deals might add up to such a tangible benefit—but only if also combined with ecotourism, sale of green products, and fees for carbon storage, flood control, or other services natural habitats provide.  Frisvold believes conservationists would get better results working to attack the pressures to convert the land—by fighting subsidies that encourage deforestation, and by pushing land reform so small farmers have a place to feed their families other than by hacking fields out of the forest.

That is, conservation is always going to be hard, slow work, and more often than not, with a major headache at the end of the day.   You can take two aspirin—or the latest miracle drug—and go to bed.

But don’t expect everything to be better in the morning.

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