Suppose there were a place in the world where there is a concentration of research laboratories busy working on antibiotics, cures for diseases, means for neutralizing environmental toxins and other molecular approaches that make for longevity. Suppose further that these laboratories have been doing such work for a long time and have already discovered hundreds if not thousands of molecular-based longevity solutions – solutions unknown in our mainline science. Suppose further that means for efficient manufacturing of these molecular solutions have also been worked out in these laboratories and that the solutions have already been tested and shown to work in various species. Finally, suppose that there are literally billions of such laboratories concentrated in many places in the world.
All this exists. The laboratories are plants, insects and fauna. The solution-discovery process is called evolution, rainforests are among the places where the biomolecular solution process takes place, and the laboratories have been at it for hundreds of millions of years. This post is about disovering health and longevity solutions by studying such laboratories.
To begin, I point out a few facts about rainforests and that many of our important existing drugs are based on rainforest plants. From Rainforest Facts” “Currently, 121 prescription drugs currently sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. And while 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, less than 1% of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists.” “More than half of the world’s estimated 10 million species of plants, animals and insects live in the tropical rainforests. One-fifth of the world’s fresh water is in the Amazon Basin.” ‘One hectare (2.47 acres) may contain over 750 types of trees and 1500 species of higher plants.” “Nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next quarter century due to rainforest deforestation.”
Among the important existing drugs derived from rain forest plants are Neostigmine used for glaucoma, Quinine for treating malaria and inflammatory diseases, Cocaine-derived anesthetics, Turbocuarine-based muscle relaxants, Vincristine and Vinblastine used to treat pediatric leukemia and Hogkin’s disease, and Cortisone is used for many purposes and is the active ingredient in birth control pills(ref).
The process of drug-discovery based on studying rainforest plants is a very different than the conventional drug-discovery approaches based on massive screening of compounds, improving on existing drugs or taking advantage of unique molecular pathways. Conventional drug and biotech companies may be at a disadvantage for such rainforest discovery compared to new eco-discovery companies. A place to start can be traditional cures used by indigenous people and known to shamans.
Shaman Pharmaceuticals is a San Francisco company concerned with: Integrating Indigenous Knowledge, Tropical Medicinal Plants, Medicine, Modern Science and Reciprocity into a Novel Drug Discovery Approach. “Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Inc. is a South San Francisco-based pharmaceutical company that focuses on isolating bioactive compounds from tropical plants that have a history of medicinal use. Shaman is working to promote the conservation of tropical forests and bridge the gap between the biomedical needs of both indigenous cultures and the rest of the global population. Eschewing the mass screening approach typically done by many pharmaceutical companies, Shaman has pioneered a novel approach to drug discovery, integrating traditional plant natural products chemistry, the science of ethnobotany, medicine, and medicinal chemistry while maintaining a commitment of reciprocity to the indigenous cultures.” Shaman Pharmaceutical’s operations began in 1990. Utilizing the ethnobotanical/ethnomedical approach to collecting tropical medicinal plant species, Shaman has been successful in bringing two products into clinical trials within 24 months of that time. This focused approach is currently being used in Shaman’s antidiabetic discovery program. Since the inception of the diabetes program two years ago, Shaman has discovered multiple new chemical leads from plant sources and, to date, patents have been filed on five of them. Each of these chemical leads is currently undergoing preclinical evaluation(ref).“
Another eco-discovery company is the Australian company Ecobiotics(ref), which works in rainforests in Australia. “The researchers at EcoBiotics take a more encompassing approach to exploring the Australian rainforests than do companies who search for new compounds in South America’s rainforests. EcoBiotics’ cofounders, Victoria Gordon, Ph.D., and Paul Reddell, Ph.D., are chemical and forest ecologists who live and work at the company’s headquarters near Cairns in the Daintree Rainforest of northeastern Australia. Their research team experiences firsthand the seasonal variation in plants, insect assaults, and invasions of microorganisms. In contrast, researchers at other drug companies generally visit rainforests for a few weeks, collect plant materials, and take them back to laboratories to analyze them for new chemicals, according to Delco. The holistic approach at EcoBiotics “is like watching a movie instead of looking at snapshots,” he adds.” “Plants evolve amazingly complex and dynamic chemical systems to survive. For example, when attacked by pathogenic microbes, plants use pattern recognition receptors to identify their assailants and produce specific antibiotics to defend themselves. “Attract-or-repel interactions create novel chemicals,” says Delco, as plants respond to injury, climate change, or invaders in a limited space(ref).”
When dealing with rainforest plants, strange clues can lead to new drug discoveries. “The observation that rainforest marsupials spit out seeds after eating the fruit of a certain plant led to the company’s lead compound, EBC-46. Scientists at EcoBiotics learned that the unpalatable seeds contain an inflammatory agent that made the animals’ tongues swell. They isolated the active ingredient, a diterpene ester, which belongs to a new class of chemicals. EBC-46 shows anticancer properties against basal and squamous cell carcinomas, melanoma, and head and neck tumors, Delco reports. The active ingredient in EBC-46 is easily purified from a ubiquitous plant species that can be quickly grown on plantations. The company is developing a GMP process to insure commercial quantities of the drug for future investigations. EBC-46 is a protein kinase C regulator that initiates apoptosis of tumor cells and causes a local inflammatory reaction that recruits the body’s neutrophils to attack the tumor. When injected into incurable soft tissue sarcoids, nasopharangeal cancers, and oral malignant melanomas in horses, dogs, and sheep, EBC-46 destroyed the tumors and healing was evident in about two weeks, Delco reports. The positive animal results “don’t guarantee that EBC-46 will work in people,” he adds, “but it’s promising.” EcoBiotics plans to file an investigational new drug application for EBC-46 within a year (ref).”
Several other rainforest drug discovery programs are reported from time to time in the news. See, for example, Malaria: New drug lead from Madagascar’s rainforests. Often, those interested in rainforest drug discovery are also interested in preservation of the rainforest eco-environments. See Drug Discovery Program Helps Save Rainforests, Too. For more background on ethnobotanical rainforest drug discovery you can see this and this and this references.
Returning to the first point in this post, rain forest biological entities have been doing anti-aging and health research hundreds of millions of years. It can serve us well to learn about and take advantage of that research before the rainforests are decimated.
Finally, a quick observation comparing research-in-the-laboratory and research-by-evolution. This is about antibiotics against infectious pathogens like staph and strep, a battle that has been going on for 70 years now. In the history of this period many highly effective antibiotic drugs have been rendered ineffective by the evolutionary emergence of drug-resistant pathogen microbe strains, the latest including ultra drug resistant strains of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). On the one hand we have thousands of researchers wearing white coats in gleaming laboratories spending long hours and hundreds of millions or billions of dollars researching ways to develop new drugs that will kill the drug-resistant strains. Linezolid, one of the few drugs effective aginst some but not all strains of MRSA, costs about $100 per pill. Meanwhile, the microbes themselves are quietly doing research by evolving, finding ways to survive by altering their molecular mechanisms despite whatever new drugs we throw at them. Who is winning? Recent evidence says the evolving microbes are pulling ahead.