According to the WWF, with a moderately conservative estimate we might be losing up to 10,000 species annually. While it is difficult to compute the real number accurately, we do know species disappear much more rapidly than they used to, and it is likely that human activity fuels that process. The benefits of protecting biodiversity are numerous, but one of the often overlooked aspects of it concerns modern medicine.
As we continue fighting well known diseases like cancer or new ones like avian or swine flu, we can turn to nature as a source of drugs much more readily than to research labs and their purely synthetic products. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is the go-to example here, and a good one: it is a drug which remains in use to this day, and one that has given rise to a whole class of medications.
Nature as a reliable source of new treatments
When we think of drug production, the first image in our heads is of sterile labs, biochemists in full-body suits, Petri dishes, and computerized equipment which synthesise new compounds. A report on new medication production in the period 1981 – 2006 shows a different picture. The labs are there, of course, but a good deal of the cures are not man-made.
An average of 63% of all new medications’ basic molecules were either entirely natural or semi-synthetic derivatives of natural compounds. This is an immense number and only an average based on 974 new molecules logged in that period. When we go into specific therapeutic areas, like preventing bacterial infections, inflammations, or hypertension, the share of natural cures increases even further.
Traditional cures and avenues
Many of the molecules included in the above report have also been used in traditional medicine for a long time. This is especially true of plant extracts, which were the main class of medication for centuries and continue playing an important role in the treatment of many diseases to this day.
Microbes are another group of bioactive organisms with natural healing powers due to their potential to thwart the growth and spread of competing species. Marine organisms, particularly invertebrates, have also recently supplied us with new anti-inflammatory drugs and cancer treatments.
How natural cures are discovered
There are two general approaches to integrating natural compounds into drug development. The first one is purposeful screening, or collecting large biodiverse samples and testing them for the presence of useful bioactivity. Advanced biological knowledge is applied in the sampling process, and species pass rigorous pretests in order to make it into the screening pool. The logic behind this is that very little of our planet’s flora and fauna has been pharmaceutically tested, and there is a great potential for discovery waiting to be realised.
The second approach to natural compound integration in drug development involves ethnobotany (the study of how plants are used in different societies) and ethnopharmacology (a subdivision of ethnobotany dealing specifically with medical uses). Both paradigms also make sure that the species under consideration show promise which warrants further testing and development.
The fight for diversity
As we continue discovering new medicinally active species of plants and animals, both through lab testing and ethnographic study, we find ourselves pressed for time: organisms that have accompanied human evolution for thousands of years are now going extinct by the day, and their healing potential is jeopardised. The necessary action is twofold: a) increase environmental responsibility, especially in little explored areas of the planet; b) invest in medical R&D and support clinical studies with a clear natural focus before it is too late.