THINK ON THESE: Medicines from biodiversity

“The protection of biodiversity has to be considered a basic requirement of sustainability – passing on to future generations a world of undiminished options – and a fundamental moral responsibility as travelers on the only planet known to support life.” – John C. Ryan


“We are losing biological diversity at an unprecedented rate,” decried the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) during the World Food Day celebration twenty-four years ago.

Biological diversity (or biodiversity for short) is made up of all species of plants and animals, their genetic material and the ecosystems of which they are a part. Species diversity refers to the variety of species within a given area. Genetic diversity, on the other hand, refers to the variation of genes and genotypes between and within species.

In recent years, the international community is increasingly recognizing the contribution of biodiversity in securing public health and community well-being. For thousands of years, humans rely on nature, particularly plants, for medicine.

Due to the high visibility of innovative compounds and novel drugs developed based on plants and other natural resources, the relevance of biodiversity to modern health cannot be understated.

“Nearly 90% of human diseases known to medical science can be treated with prescription drugs derived from nature,” notes Dr. Paul Torrence, an Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Northern Arizona University. “The benefits to humanity of nature-derived medicines are incalculable in terms of longevity, relief of suffering and increase in the quality of life.”

According to the Environmental Magazine, some 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide today are derived directly from rainforest plants. The U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) reported that more than two-thirds of all medicines found to have cancer-fighting properties come from rainforest plants.

Examples abound.

“One of the biggest breakthroughs against cancer in recent decades has stemmed from the Madagascar periwinkle (scientific name: Catharanthus roseus), the source of two potent drugs used against leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease,” says Prof. Norman Myers, a British environmentalist specializing in biodiversity who has been a consultant to several United Nation agencies, the World Bank, and other organizations.

It has been reported that the ingredients obtained and synthesized from a now-extinct periwinkle plant have increased the chances of survival for children with leukemia from 20% to 80%. The NCI believes tropical rainforests may well contain “at least ten further plants with similar potential against cancer.”

“We cannot imagine a world without antibiotics such as penicillins, cephalosporins, doxycycline, or erythromycin, without pain relievers, without muscle relaxants, without oral contraceptives, without cancer drugs like Taxol, without blood pressure lowering drugs like lisonopril, without digoxin for heart failure, without local anesthetics, and without anticoagulants like coumarins for thrombosis,” Dr. Torrence points out.

People should be thankful for the wealth of tropical forests next time they visit a pharmacy. “There is one-in-four chance that our purchase will derive from tropical forest plants,” Prof. Myers says. “It may be an antibiotic, an analgesic, a diuretic, a laxative, a tranquilizer or even just cough drops, among many other products.”

Not too many know that the contraceptive pill was originally manufactured from a wild yam growing in Mexico’s forests. Among the latest pills comes courtesy of a forest plant of West Africa. There is also some hope that a therapy to counter Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) lies with a plant in Queensland’s forests.

In the Philippines, some scientists believe that the country’s biodiversity offers potential leads for the development of pharmaceutical medicines.

“There are endemic plants, insects, marine organisms, minerals (in the country) that could be a source of pharmacologic interventions in diseases,” says Dr. Joven Apostol, who was named recently by the National Research Council of the Philippines as an Outstanding Filipino Researcher.

Apostol, a pharmacy professor at the University of Sto. Tomas, admitted that while the presence of foreign pharmaceutical manufacturers has dipped over the years as most have shifted operations to the other countries, such drawback was in a way a blessing.

“It has awakened the Filipino spirit to become more entrepreneurial and there has been a growth spike in drug research and development in academic and research institutes and local manufacturers focusing on endemic biomaterials,” he said. “This is also partly due to the encouragement and support of the science and technology agencies of the government and other funding agencies.”

The UST professor also pointed out that basic research is crucial in drug development.

“A pharmaceutical product is only good as it is safe and effective,” he said. “A drug molecule will not advance to formulation and manufacturing without the preliminary data on its safety, effect, mechanism of action, toxicity and others – basic information on drug source, synthesis, kinetics and interactions which can only be provided by basic research.”

A press statement from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) said that research in basic pharmacology includes screening of these biomaterials for their effects on the physical and chemical processes of the living organism and on the nature and courses on diseases.

Various methods of testing are employed, such as in vitro, in vivo and in silico. The results of these basic researches serve as the basis to support further studies leading to formulation and clinical use of the drug product.

Gains in the growth of the pharmaceutical sector can be sustained by continuous support to both basic and applied research. “This way we can reduce our reliance to foreign manufactured drugs,” the press statement said.