Although tropical rainforests only account for around 6% of the Earth’s surface, these environments contain at least half of all known species on our planet. This is a staggering figure, made all the more alarming by the widespread destruction of these environments.
The Medicine Cabinet of the World
Western medicine relies heavily on plant derivatives found in tropical rainforests, with around 7,000 medical compounds based on those key ingredients. The beneficial effects of those ingredients are wide and varied, supplying key components such as:
- Quinine, extracted from the cinchona tree, which is vital in treating Malaria.
- Alkaloid d-turbocuarine, extracted from the Curare vine which has valuable anesthetic qualities. It is used in various operations, including eye, abdominal and tonsillectomies. Alkaloid d-turbocuarine also has uses in treatments for muscular disorders including multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
- Cortisone and diosgenin, taken from wild yams, which are active ingredients in birth control tablets.
Not only that, but of the 3000 plants which have been identified by the United States National Cancer Institute as having anti-cancer properties, seventy per cent of those plants are found in tropical rainforests.
A Living Library of Medicine
However, tropical rainforests don’t just serve as ingredient stores, they also provide valuable information for researchers and scientists seeking to develop synthesised drug compounds by using the chemical structures found in rainforest fauna and flora as templates to work from. For example, the blueprint for Aspirin was developed by scientists studying extracts of willow trees found in rainforests.
Following on from this, it’s also important to point out that rainforest plants are a vital piece of the puzzle when it comes to further research. Not only do they hold the potential to help develop safer birth control drugs for men and women alike, but they could also hold the key to developing safer pesticides for farmers, and the possibility for creating crops with natural self-defence mechanisms. The study of certain rainforest plant compounds has also allowed scientists to understand cancer cell growth, and it’s likely that such compounds could also be used as building blocks in the development for a cure for cancer or even AIDS.
The benefits of the rainforest have long been harvested by its indigenous tribes and for thousands of years shamans have used these traditional methods to treat all kinds of ailments, both physical and psychological. Indeed, over eighty per cent of people in developing countries are thought to still rely on these tried and trusted methods, and until they are able to access modern facilities, shamans and herbal healers continue to rely on the rainforests to aid them in the treatment of their people.
Why It’s So Important to Protect Rainforests
Modern drug development companies and have only studied a small percentage of the treatments used by indigenous people. Despite this fact, 25% of all western medicines are derived from ingredients that grow in the rainforest. It should be fairly evident then, that in addition providing other ecological services, rainforests serve as a vital component when it comes to fighting and curing disease.
Developing a new drug is a length process, drug development companies need to conduct clinical trials before an application can even be submitted for MHRA approval. Pre-approval clinical trials consist of three phases, they study pharmacodynamics, pharmacokinetics, efficacy, and the safety of the treatment. The average length of time between discovery and a treatment being made available is around 15 years.
It’s frightening to think that these rich resources are very much under threat, and much yet needs to be done to ensure the rainforests are not lost due to mining, logging, and deforestation to create agricultural land.
Knowledge Is Our Weapon
If the secrets of the Amazonian Rainforest and its ilk are to be unlocked, then it essential that they are protected. There is no easy answer to how the destruction of these precious resources can be halted, but it must be done. The first step in this process is to increase public awareness of the value of the rainforests as it is this current ignorance which is helping in its decline. Given the importance of the rainforests role in the health of humanity has been thus far, we cannot afford to throw it away.