Story under construction: Medical breakthroughs jeopardised by deforestation

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  1. Ethnobiologists explore the world's shrinking tropical forests
  2. Forests – not big pharma – seem to hold the key on antibiotics
  3. Putting the "ant" into antibiotics

Apart from being the “lungs of the world” [Attribute] tropical rainforests have long surrendered secrets valuable to medicine.

In the same way colonial era plant hunters searched for new species to take home or exploit commercially, medical researchers explore tropical forests for cures and treatments in their diverse flora.

[Tropical forest example here.]

[Some original reporting would be valuable in this story. Say from the London School of Tropical Medicine and/or a major pharmaceutical company.]


The Pacific Yew, a tree native to North America, was once considered “commercially useless”, until 1962, when it was found to contain the compound taxol– a substance that kills cancer cells.

Breakthroughs in medicine often starts from the study of plant life, an estimated 12.5 percent of plant species have medicinal value. Yet less than 15% of  the estimated 390,000 species of plants have been screened for their medicinal potential.

The largest untapped resource is the Earth’s rainforests, which cover less than 7% of the Earth’s surface yet are home to approximately 50% of all land animal and plant species. The concern is that rainforests are disappearing.

Since the 1990s, the Earth has lost roughly 7.5 million hectares of tropical forests every year. The North Atlantic Space Agency’s (NASA) Earth Observatory predicts that if current rates continue, the rain forests will be wiped out within 100 years. That would mean as many as 15,000 medicinal plants are under threat, as well as any hope humanity has for future medical cures.

Credit: National Geographic



Of anti-cancer drugs available between 1940 and 2002, 40% were from natural products or natural derived products. Quinine, which is on the WHO’s essential medicine list and used for treating malaria, comes from the bark of a Cinchona tree, found in the tropical forests of the Andes, South America. And the Calabar bean which comes from the tropical forests of Africa is used to treat glaucoma (a condition where the nerve that connects your eye and brain becomes damaged and can lead to vision loss).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated in 2006 that 80% of the world’s population mainly rely on traditional plant-based medicines, mainly in the third-world. The developed world, however, is a different story. Since the 1990s pharmaceutical industries aren’t pursuing naturally derived medicines as much as synthetic ones. According to one study, synthetic drugs can have greater or quicker effects than natural based medicines, but have increased side effects.


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