Rain Forest Plan Blends Drug Research, Conservation

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 7, 2003

A husband and wife biologist team has proposed a plan they say will be more effective in identifying medical cures found in tropical rain forest plants and animals.

The centerpiece of the program developed by the professors at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and some 40 Panamanian scientists and students, calls for the developed world to redirect a significant portion of the U.S. $23 billion to $47 billion it spends each year on drug research and development to developing countries where rain forests grow.

The plan is an outgrowth of a five-year, three-million-dollar (U.S.) study awarded by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama, with money from the United States' National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The researchers outline their proposal, along with a drug discovery technique they say is more efficient, in the October issue of the Ecological Society of America journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

"The idea of doing research in source countries is what we consider a good solution that hasn't really been worked on or proposed," said Thomas Kursar, who led the study with his wife, Phyllis Coley.

In an accompanying perspective article, Jeffrey McNeely, a chief scientist with the World Conservation Union, the Switzerland-based conservation and scientific organization, said the proposal "is an excellent first step."

To further aid rain forest conservation while prospecting for medical cures, McNeely said other necessary steps include: local scholarships for graduate students, recognizing and compensating local people for sharing their traditional knowledge, and direct investment in conservation by pharmaceutical firms.

Spend Locally

Even if a drug never makes it to market, money spent to build new laboratories in developing countries and to hire and train local scientists to find, study, and test rain forest plants and animals for medical cures brings immediate value to the rain forest, the researchers said.

"The probability of a drug making it all the way through the drug discovery process is … practically zero," said Coley.

Both conservationists and the drug industry have touted "bioprospecting"—exploring wild plants and animals for commercially valuable products—as a viable means to protect rain forests since royalty monies from the drugs discovered could be used to conserve land. But without successful drugs, no royalties are available.

With the prospect of such conservation payoffs hinging on biomedical breakthroughs that are distant at best and uncertain at worst, the researchers say a different method to link rain forest pharmaceutical research and conservation is needed.

Continued on Next Page >>




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