Nature: our medicine cabinet

In line with my recent post about the importance of biodiversity for ecosystem functions and services to us humans, I recently read about an ecosystem service we literally cannot live without- medicine.

Hopefully some of you have seen the amazing movie Medicine Man with Sean Connery. I remember seeing this movie when I was around 10 years old and while I don’t remember details about the plot, I do remember Sean Connery zipping around in the rainforest canopy, working in his tent-covered laboratory, and trying to protect his research site from bulldozers- obviously, it was hugely influential in my career choice. (As I read the plot now, I see that it was an ANT that contained the cancer cure…. how could I forget that?)

Anyways, back to ecosystem services! The “medicine man” in the movie was actually a scientist working for a large pharmaceutical company attempting to find the cure for cancer. Guess what? Pharmaceutical companies actually do search rainforests for cures- or at least they did. According to a recent article in Conservation Magazine by Richard Conniff, Big Pharma spent millions searching for cures hidden in rare rainforest biota only to pull out years later and focus on synthetic medicine. But why?

Well, many issues come from one question: who benefits from the profits? Of course, the pharmaceutical company can make billions off a successful drug, but what about conservation? Think about it: if a company finds a treatment for a certain cancer like they did in the Madagascar periwinkle (below) for lymphoma, and then we learn how to synthesize it in the lab- what will happen to the original habitat? What about the local people who did not cut the habitat down during the 20 years it took for the drug trials and synthesis?

These issues have rightly led to increased bureaucracy and questions about the rights of landowners and the conservation obligation of the companies. These are hard questions to answer and make the process more difficult- thus one of the reasons Big Pharma has backed off on using nature as a medicine cabinet. On top of the red-tape, according to Conniff, the companies also started using faster, more automated technology. In fact, the very thing that makes nature an important resource- the millions of unique chemicals- is the very thing that is incompatible and inefficient with new screening technology.

According to Conniff’s article, 50% of the drugs we depend on come directly or indirectly from nature- and we stopped looking?!? We are letting forests get destroyed without even checking?!?  Yet, as we conservationists know, it is nearly impossible for companies or governments to conserve something because it might be profitable in the future. However, as I mentioned in my last post, this is another ecosystem service that we need to take into consideration when valuing biodiversity. We can only hope that companies and governments will respond better to dollar signs. And for added inspiration? We can show them Medicine Man.


About tcornelisse
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