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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C
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Opinion Deforestation isn't just changing our climate, it could be destroying life-saving medicines

The impact on the local biodiversity in the deforested areas is detrimental and potentially irreversible.

OVER 200,000 ACRES of rainforest are lost every single day to deforestation. To apply some form of scale to this massive number, it is the equivalent of an area of land 114 times the size of Dublin’s Phoenix Park being destroyed every single day as a consequence of human activity. Undoubtedly, this erosion of our planet’s rainforest is altering our global climate with extremes in temperature, weather patterns and sea-levels being the highly probable repercussions to our species’ impact upon our environment.

While the conventional narrative of climate change traditionally focuses on changing weather conditions, another consequence that is not discussed as often is the implication climate change may pose on the progression of our fight against diseases such as cancer, or against resistant bacteria.

Natural products and drug development

Although in recent years there has been particular focus on combinatorial chemistry in the search for new anticancer drugs, natural products are once again being acknowledged as key tools in terms of drug development. One of the main reasons for this apparent reversal of technique is that the synthetic compounds created in a lab are so different to human cells that these compounds find it very difficult to successfully interact with the cells.

Plants have proven to be leading contenders in the past in terms of cancer therapy, with mainstream drugs like Paclitaxel and Camptothecin (CPT) used in cancer treatment today being initially isolated from trees. Another example of mainstream drugs isolated from plants is that of the vinca alkaloids, first discovered in the periwinkle plant (Catharanthus roseus).

But what has this got to do with climate change?

Deforestation is the leading driver of climate change today, contributing more than 12% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions; that is more greenhouse gases emissions than from the ENTIRE global transport sector combined.

When we think of deforestation we think of trees being cut down, but the implications are so much more. The impact on the local biodiversity in the deforested areas is detrimental and potentially irreversible. The Amazon rainforest is home to the richest collection of species diversity on earth, with 1 in every 4 species in the world found there. Among the multiplicity of life thriving in the Amazon, over 438,000 species of plant can be found; and on account of this staggering number of species, very little information is actually known about an awful lot of them.

But the problem is this: with deforestation in the Amazon progressing at an average rate of between 6,000-28,000 km2/year, the chance that many plants may be destroyed before they can even be discovered is very likely. We may in fact be sealing our own fate, by destroying the possible solution that scientists and doctors alike have been searching for so long.

Promising results 

To highlight the potential of Amazonian plants, we must turn to a small group of researchers in Universidade Paulista in São Paulo, Brazil. Headed by Dr Drauzio Varella, the team have spent over 10 years collecting plant extracts from the Brazilian Amazon, and have built up a catalogue of over 1,220 extracts during the course of their work. #

These extracts have been tested for their ability to combat disease, and the results were very promising. Over 70 extracts have been shown to have cytotoxic (cell-killing) ability, and the team have published their findings of cytotoxic activity against a strain of breast cancer, prostate cancer, as well as lung, colon, CNS cancer and leukaemia. Of four strains of bacteria that have shown drug resistance in the past, the team in Brazil have also shown positive effects of plant extracts against two of them. Their findings highlight the importance of continued research into the hundreds of thousands of plants found within the ‘lungs of the earth’.

Pharmaceutical companies are looking for the money

So the obvious question that comes to mind is ‘why isn’t every pharmaceutical company in the world jetting to this mecca of pharmaceutical potential’? The Brazilians, unlike many of us westerners, both understand and appreciate the significance of their rainforest and its rich biodiversity, and have understandably implemented strict laws surrounding what you can and cannot do there. One of these laws was implemented in 1997 and concerns ‘patenting’, stating:

The Law deems not to be inventions, and for such reason unpatentable.… the whole or part of any live natural being and biological material found in nature, even isolated thereof, including the genome or germoplasm, and the natural biological processes.

In other words, while the law permits the patenting of substances obtained or isolated from natural living beings (for example pharmaceutical compositions), plant extracts or active substances isolated from plants, animals or natural microorganisms cannot be patented. This essentially removes the monetary incentive for pharmaceutical companies to invest in research here, and explains why the potential of medicinal plants in the Amazon remains untapped. In many ways, this well-intentioned policy is the paradox of conservation in the Brazilian Amazon.

The current drug development trend is focusing on biological drugs, so it is likely that some amendments or exceptions may have to be considered for future research. But if deforestation and subsequent climate change continue at current rates, a future amendment to patenting laws may be too late; who knows what potentially valuable plants may have already been destroyed for good. And maybe the cure for cancer does not lie within the 5,500,000 km2 of the Amazon Rainforest; but what if it does?

Leah Gainey is an Environmental Analyst with Irish Eco-business Celestial Green Ventures. The full report on medicinal potential in the Brazilian Amazon and other similar studies that have been undertaking by CGV, are available here

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