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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pharmaceutical Prospecting

Air Date: Week of

Bob Carty reports on an agreement between the Merck Pharmaceutical company and a Costa Rican conservation group to study all of the country's plants and animals for medicinal properties. If the company finds any useful substances, it will pay royalties to the country for rainforest protection and economic development.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

The earth's rainforests help sustain life by being the lungs of the planet. They also help humans by providing an array of substances to treat diseases. But many scientists feel that we have only begun to scratch the surface of that pharmacopia. Now, as part of the efforts to slow the destruction of the rainforests, Costa Rican conservationists have signed a contract with the Merck Pharmaceutical Corporation to let the company go prospecting in the jungle for new drugs. Bob Carty prepared our report.

(Sound: frogs croaking, man walking through jungle)

CARTY: When it rains in the rainforest, an uncomfortable but not unexpected event, it doesn't slow Gerardo Mora down. Dressed in camouflage pants, Gerardo walks with intensity through the jungle of the Tapanti Wildlife Reserve. His eyes dart up and down the vine-draped trees; he kicks over a rock, looks under a leaf, opens the petals of an orchid. Gerardo Mora is looking for bugs, beetles, spiders, snakes --- and for a cure for cancer or AIDS.

(Sound: net in grass)

CARTY: And then Gerardo gets serious. He takes a large butterfly net and marches through the knee-high plants, flailing the net back and forth. He opens it up to show me his catch.

(Sound: Spanish conversation)

CARTY: Gerardo points out several spiders, a mosquito, a small kind of cockroach, and assorted other bugs with baffling names. Gerardo knows them all. He's one of 31 rainforest prospectors, park guards who have been trained as parataxonomists -- to collect and classify plant and insect species for the National Institute for Biodiversity, or INBio.

Ana Sittenfeld is INBio's director of research. She says both Costa Ricans and the drug companies are recognizing the mother lode in Mother Nature. After all, look at the rainforest's resume of medicinal discoveries.

SITTENFELD: Very simple. Aspirin. Melachor (sic ), which is the most-sought drug right now for treating high cholesterol levels. Bincristine (sic ) and binvistine (sic ) , from periwinkle, for the treatment of lymphomas and leukemias, and don't forget the antibiotics. At least a quarter of what you can buy in a pharmacy today comes from natural sources. I would say it is a natural resource for the economic development of Costa Rica. I call it "green gold."

(Sound: sawing)

CARTY: That green gold is already at work. At the National Institute of Biodiversity, workers are finishing a new building, paid for by the new contract with the Merck Pharmaceutical Company.

INBio is a non-profit, non-government institute that is trying to make Costa Rica the first country in the world with a biodiversity inventory, a complete catalogue of its plant and insect species. In a nearby building, INBio already has two and a half million specimens stacked inside of air-conditioned, earthquake-proof cabinets. The two-year Merck deal will help INBio expand its work. With the approval of the local government, INBio will collect insect and plant samples from national parks. Merck will then screen some of these samples for medical, pesticide and chemical uses. Ten percent of the million-dollar contract goes directly to conserve the park system.

But the key to the deal is the royalty potential. INBio gets a percentage of the sales of any product that Merck develops on the basis of Costa Rican samples. If INBio strikes it rich, it'll channel the money through the government to save the rainforest. INBio's director, Rodrigo Gamez, says he hopes to find 10 to 20 products. And that could mean a significant economic payoff.

GAMEZ: If you consider that a good drug may bring profits of in excess of a hundred million or a billion dollars to the pharmaceutical companies, and that a country like Costa Rica has a share, let's say one percent, or two percent or three percent, this in actual terms will mean more income to the country than the 300 million dollars we normally get from coffee.
(Sound: squeaking noise)

CARTY: At the University of Costa Rica, amidst the test tubes and machinery of modern science, Giselle Tomayo is cranking the squeaky handle of a good old-fashioned meat grinder. INBio has contracted Professor Tomayo and her chemistry department to do another step in rainforest prospecting.

TOMAYO: What we are doing right now is grinding this plant, the sultani. You can find this plant in all the gardens over Central America, I think. The people use it against virus, for example, the cold, the influenza, or something like that.

CARTY: That's one way to look for rainforest medicines: exploring the remedies of native or traditional healers. But INBio and Merck are also following what they call ecological leads: like the branch that falls off a tree in the middle of a humid jungle and doesn't rot. That could mean it might be the source of a fungicide, or an anti-bacterial agent. And there may be wonderful medicines in a colony of millions of ants where somehow infections and viruses do not spread. In fact, scientists say the real unexplored frontier of the natural world is that of insects and microorganisms.

Giselle Tomayo holds up a petri dish filled with black, dissected bugs. She says they're quite toxic, and that may be a lead.

TOMAYO: Because something that's toxic usually must be toxic against other diseases. For example, the drugs for cancer are usually highly toxic. As you see, we cut the insect into two halves, and we take the head off and we extract it after we get this extraction.
CARTY: Do you ever feel like a little Frankenstein?
TOMAYO: (Laughs) The first time I done, I was a little bit, I don't know, I was scared sometimes.

CARTY: Arachnophobia and other insect fears have proven easier to overcome in this project than a more deep-rooted apprehension: the mutual suspicion ecologists and business people feel towards each other. The question INBio is most frequently asked is, who is Merck?

( Sound: Merck ad: "You can imagine how relieved I was when my doctor said Mylanta. . ." )

CARTY: Merck and Company is the firm behind this best-selling stomach-acid medicine. The company exactly a household name, because it specializes in prescription drugs. However, Merck is the biggest pharmaceutical company in the world, headquartered in New Jersey. Merck's annual revenues are twice the size of the entire Costa Rican economy -- a fact that has led some to wonder if the million dollar contract with Costa Rica is mere public relations.

Not so, says Merck. It could have taken samples out of Costa Rica, as other foreigners do, without paying anything. Merck came here because, although other countries have more biodiversity, Costa Rica has 25 percent of its territory protected by parks, it has an educated population, and it has INBio -- an established institute with organized knowledge about the rainforest.

Merck promotes itself as a company with a social conscience. The company makes almost two billion dollars in profits every year. But it says making money isn't what it's all about. Merck's managing director for Central America is Francisco Delgado.

DELGADO: Merck works for the health of the people. That has been always the objective, and as you accomplish that, profit will come behind that.
CARTY: What do you think your chances of finding something are?
DELGADO: This isn't predictable, really isn't predictable, almost a gamble.
CARTY: But people usually don't gamble with a million dollars.
DELGADO: Well, but it's not gambling, it's a contribution to the environment. And at the same time Merck thinks that it can profit from that. You do not have to destroy nature in order to do business.

CARTY: In fact, rainforest prospecting is based on the idea that business can help preserve nature, and it could be a win-win game. But there are limits to mutuality of interests between a company from the industrialized world and the economy and ecology of a poor country.

Costa Rica, for example, doesn't want to continue being a banana republic -- just shipping out raw materials to rich countries and leaving behind little know-how and employment . That's why INBio is asking drug companies to move part of their research and development activities to Costa Rica -- to increase technology transfer and job generation.

The corporate search for green medicines also doesn't always match the needs of poor countries where most of the rainforests are found. For example, INBio is doing its own research into treatments for malaria. Research director Ann Sittenfeld says that's because the pharmaceutical companies are only interested in patients who can pay.

SITTENFELD: They're looking to solve the problems with cancer, with AIDS, with immune diseases, also to the process of increasing your life span. And in the case of malaria, although we know that the market is big in terms of numbers, it might not be in terms of dollars, because most of the patients are in the developing countries and they don't pay the money that you need in order to cover your expenses and your research.

CARTY: Ana Sittenfeld admits there are risks in this project. In the United States, the Bristol-Myers company discovered a cancer treatment called taxol, based on a chemical from the Pacific yew tree. The company had trouble reproducing the chemical synthetically, so now the yew trees may be decimated.

INBio insists that won't happen in Costa Rica. It says it will not allow collection to threaten any species. INBio's directors admit, however, that a miracle drug discovery could put unexpected pressures on the rainforest. And companies could always go to other countries where they are less regulated than in Costa Rica. As it is, market forces are already a big part of the problem. The tourism, timber, and banana industries here are behind rainforest destruction throughout the country. Green medicine will only slow that destruction if there's enough money in it for the government to justify putting restraints on other industries. Ana Sittenfeld knows the challenge is one of political will.

SITTENFELD: There are risks. This is business, this is almost a game. If we decide to do the things that we can do, and if Merck decides they can do it, they have a lot to lose, and we also have a lot to lose. We desire to take the chance and see how this first big deal, and no one will know until some years have been passed. The bigger risk will be that we do nothing.

(Sound: frogs)

CARTY: In Costa Rica's jungles, there will soon be more rainforest prospectors turning over rocks and leaves. INBio hopes to train 200 of them. Meanwhile, the institute is close to signing a contract with another major pharmaceutical company. A small German firm has offered to transfer part of its operations to Costa Rica. And in the wake of the Merck deal, international companies are rushing to sign up other countries for rainforest prospecting.

There is a possibility that little or nothing will be found. There's also the chance that even the discovery of miracle medicines will still not stop the other economic forces that are destroying the jungles. But right now, rainforest prospecting looks like a promising experiment -- by serving human health, the rainforest could save itself.

For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in the Tapanti Wildlife Reserve in Costa Rica.



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