The potential of rainforests to provide the wonder drugs of the future: a less well known argument for rainforest preservation
The environmental argument for protecting standing rainforest has been well made and remains relevant, with National Geographic estimating an area the size of Panama is deforested globally every year. Though some success against deforestation has been achieved, particularly in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, legal deforestation spurred by demand for cattle grazing and logging is compounded by illegal deforestation.
A less well known argument for rainforest preservation is that rainforests contain the potential for important pharmaceutical advances. Ethnobotany is already well-established with Cinchona (‘quinine’ anti-malarial), Common Nasturtium (antibiotic) and even Stevia (sugar replacement) already in everyday use. Other plants such as Cat’s Claw are being trialed for use in cancer and AIDS treatments. As reservoirs for unique genetic resources, rainforests hold the key to more large-scale, life-saving drugs.
The rainforest has been called ‘the ultimate chemical laboratory’ with resident species evolving various chemical defenses to ensure survival in the harsh world of natural selection. They have been synthesizing these compounds for millions of years to protect against predators, infection, pests, and disease. This makes rainforest species an excellent reservoir of medicines and chemical templates with which researchers can create new drugs.
Rainforest plants have already provided a number of remedies and are certain to provide more. Seventy percent of the plants identified as having anti-cancer characteristics by the US National Cancer Institute are found only in the tropical rainforest. In the Yucatan Peninsula, for example, of 2,400 local species, one-third of the regional flora can be used for medicinal purposes.
The economics of blockbuster drugs are enormous as are their benefits to mankind. The value of preserving standing rainforest for this reason alone is invaluable. The challenge will lay in sympathetically working with local communities to analyze, test, farm and restore plant stocks, while sharing the gains equitably. After all, our lives could depend on it.
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