Explainer: Deforestation jeopardises discovery of future drugs

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Some scientists believe only 1% of  the worlds’ plant species have been screened for their medicinal potential. With more than 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest being lost everyday could many potential drugs be lost before the plants containing them are even discovered?

Drugs used to treat malaria, cancer and glaucoma all originally came from tropical forests.

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. However, this might not always be possible as tropical forests are chopped down.

According to the Scientific American, more than 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest and 135 species of plants and animals are lost daily. If current rates continue, the North Atlantic Space Agency’s (NASA) Earth Observatory predict the world’s rainforests will be gone within 100 years.

Current extinction rates are 100-1,000 times higher than natural background rates and as many as 15,000 medicinal plants are under threat. This means humanity could potentially lose many future medical drugs contained within these plants.

Predictions vary, but only 1 –15% of plant species have been screened for their medicinal potential. This leaves out other potential uses such as a food or material. And one study estimated that 12.5% of plant species documented worldwide have medicinal value. 

According to Milken Institute Review for every 10,000 compounds screened for medicinal properties, about 250 make it to clinical trials. Of those only one will eventually become an approved drug. Around 120 prescription drugs sold globally originate from rainforest plants.

Of anticancer drugs available between 1940 and 2002, 40% were from natural or naturally derived products.

Quinine, which is on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) 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 from the Calabar bean, originating in the tropical forests of Africa, comes the drug Physostigmine, which is used to treat glaucoma (a condition where the nerve that connects your eye and brain becomes damaged and can lead to vision loss).


Biopiracy is when pharmaceutical companies use plants with medicinal properties identified by the indigenous people’s owners, for profit, without permission from them or compensating.

The most famous case of this is the plant Rosy periwinkle, native to Madagascar.

Rosy periwinkle’s original use as a traditional medicine prompted it to be investigated by scientists. Rosy periwinkle was found to have a chemical called Vincristine.  Vincristine, also on the WHO’s essential medicine list, is used to treat different types of cancer, such as leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease.

Pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly then patented and marketed the drug Vincristine, made billions and Madagascar never profited from it. However whether this in fact constitutes biopiracy is disputed because locals used Rosy periwinkle for a different medical use. And when Eli Lily filed the patent Rosy Periwinkle had spread beyond Madagascar to other countries.

Harry Ridgewell is a WikiTribune journalist with a particular interest in science and politics. Follow @harryridgewell



Botanic Gardens Conservation International (2008). Plants for life: Medicinal plant conservation and botanic gardens. [online] Richmond, U.K.: Botanic Gardens Conservation International. Available at: https://www.bgci.org/files/Worldwide/Publications/PDFs/medicinal.pdf [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Brebbia, C. and Miralles i Garcia, J. (n.d.). Environmental and Economic Impact on Sustainable Development. WIT Press. Available (partially) at: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Environmental_and_Economic_Impact_on_Sus.html?id=Gn_zDQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=true [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Gurib-Fakim, A. (2006). Medicinal plants: Traditions of yesterday and drugs of tomorrow. Molecular Aspects of Medicine, [online] 27(1), pp.1-93. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7654372_Medicinal_plants_Traditions_of_yesterday_and_drugs_of_tomorrow [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Jackson, J. (2009). The thief at the end of the world. London: Duckworth. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=798oDwAAQBAJ&dq=madagascar+Vincristine+patent&source=gbs_navlinks_s [Accessed 22 Aug. 2017].

NASA Earth Observatory (2001). Tropical Deforestation. [online] NASA Earth Observatory. Available at: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Deforestation/tropical_deforestation_2001.pdf [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Rao, M., Palada, M. and Becker, B. (2004). Medicinal and aromatic plants in agroforestry systems. Agroforestry Systems, [online] 61-62(1-3), pp.107-122. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226462494_Medicinal_and_aromatic_plants_in_agroforestry_systems [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Scientific American. (2017). Measuring the Daily Destruction of the World’s Rainforests. [online] Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/earth-talks-daily-destruction/ [Accessed 22 Aug. 2017].


Additional Sources of interest

Achard, F., Beuchle, R., Mayaux, P., Stibig, H., Bodart, C., Brink, A., Carboni, S., Desclée, B., Donnay, F., Eva, H., Lupi, A., Raši, R., Seliger, R. and Simonetti, D. (2014). Determination of tropical deforestation rates and related carbon losses from 1990 to 2010. Global Change Biology, [online] 20(8), pp.2540-2554. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.12605/full [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Alves, R. and Rosa, I. (2007). Biodiversity, traditional medicine and public health: where do they meet?. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, [online] 3(1), p.14. Available at: https://ethnobiomed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1746-4269-3-14 [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Cao, S. and Kingston, D. (2009). Biodiversity conservation and drug discovery: Can they be combined? The Suriname and Madagascar experiences. Pharmaceutical Biology, [online] 47(8), pp.809-823. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13880200902988629 [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Carson, W. and Schnitzer, S. (2011). Tropical Forest Community Ecology. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. Available (partially) at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ibsgvalaGOsC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Fabricant, D. and Farnsworth, N. (2001). The Value of Plants Used in Traditional Medicine for Drug Discovery. Environmental Health Perspectives, [online] 109, p.69. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1240543/ [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Okigbo, R., Eme, U. and Ogbogu, S. (2008). Biodiversity and conservation of medicinal and aromatic plants in Africa. Biotechnology and Molecular Biology Reviews, [online] 3(6), pp.pp. 127-134. Available at: http://www.academicjournals.org/article/article1381416602_Okigbo%20et%20al.pdf [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Rainforestfoundation.org. (2017). Commonly Asked Questions and Facts | Rainforest Foundation US. [online] Available at: http://www.rainforestfoundation.org/commonly-asked-questions-and-facts/ [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (2016). State of the World’s Plants. [online] Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. Available at: https://stateoftheworldsplants.com/2016/report/sotwp_2016.pdf [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

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