For centuries, indigenous populations across the globe have used plant remedies to treat their ailments. Many of these are highly effective, containing compounds which scientific research reveals effect demonstrable chemical and biological changes. Some of these compounds can now be synthesized artificially, resulting in the manufacture of a pharmaceutical product which can then be put to a therapeutic use.
Identifying Medically Active compounds
The processes involved in identifying potentially beneficial plant compounds, recreating the active ingredients artificially then putting the substance through a rigorous regime of testing before it can be licensed is both costly and time consuming. Out of every 250 potential plant species which are investigated for potential pharmaceutical use, approximately one drug will be derived and licensed.
Pharmaceutical companies are constantly searching for new plant species to investigate, with a view to discovering innovative compounds which can be synthesized into drugs. Biospheres which show large biodiversity are particularly rich hunting grounds for fresh plants and, sometimes tree barks or leaves, which have the potential to contain therapeutic substances.
Why Rainforests Are So Important to Medicine
Home to thousands of plants and animals, many of which are known only to the indigenous people of the area, Rainforest ecosystems are crammed with opportunities to discover new, exciting compounds which can be used to treat disease effectively.
One of the biggest challenges which pharmaceutical companies face is deciding which of the myriad of species growing in the Rainforests are best suited to undergo the lengthy and expensive process of investigation which is required before a drug can be created and eventually licensed. Although the profit made from drug marketing can be enormous, many people do not realize that the research and development costs can be as equally high. It can take up to fifteen years for a new treatment to undergo clinical trials and reach the stage where it is ready to be licensed for prescription, and the estimated cost of creating a new medicine is around $5 billion. This means companies need to pick their plants carefully, to maximise the chances of a successful drug being developed. One way of doing this is to investigate plants which are close relatives of species which have already proved to demonstrate therapeutic properties.
Additional information on suitable plants to analyse for efficacious medicinal compounds is gained from indigenous people, who often have a rich knowledge base of effective plant remedies based on a long tradition of herbal medicine. This intelligence is crucial in helping scientists determine where the most promising avenues of research lie. Historically, pharmaceutical companies have not always rewarded indigenous populations appropriately for their crucial role in the drug development process. This issue has now been addressed, and companies are altering their approach to ensure that indigenous people are suitably recompensed for their contributions.
Many companies are choosing to divert a percentage of the profits from drugs which have been developed from Rainforest plants into projects which preserve and protect the Rainforest environment. For example, the National Cancer Institute promised that a percentage of the profits from the sale of Prostialin, a drug used in the treatment of HIV which is derived from a tree growing in the Samoan Rainforests, will be handed over to the Samoan people. The money has subsequently been used to establish the fiftieth National Park in Samoa. The Merck Company works closely with the National Biodiversity Institute in Costa Rica, financing part of their operation in return for intelligence on any promising species for pharmaceutical research which are discovered as a result of the Institute’s cataloguing processes.
Over the next few decades, it is expected that many new therapeutic discoveries will be made from Rainforest flora and fauna. Increasingly, large drug companies are recognising and rewarding the crucial role which indigenous rainforest populations have in providing pre-qualified leads for drug researchers. This trend is set to continue over the next few decades, as pharmaceutical companies and indigenous people continue to work together to unlock the healing potential of the Rainforest.