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

Drug Company Calls on Traditional Healers

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Lisa Conte, president of Shaman Pharmaceuticals. The 3-year-old company hopes to turn traditional healing plants into modern medicines, and return a portion of its profits to the indigenous people who live in the areas in which the plants are found.


CURWOOD: The village shaman. . . medicine man. . . midwife. These traditional providers of health care have used herbs and other folk remedies derived from rainforests and other plants for centuries. . . But so-called modern medicine tends to dismiss them as purveyors of superstition, rather than important medical knowledge. Not so with the Shaman Pharmaceutical Company. The three-year-old firm, based in San Carlos, California and originally financed through its founder's credit cards, calls on the knowledge of local practitioners of traditional medicine in Asia, Africa and South America, to find substances which could be of use in making new drugs. President Lisa Conti says Shaman has a head start on some other companies because it works with plants that, in effect, have already been field tested.

CONTI: We only work with plants that have a history of folk use in tropical areas. That's where the name Shaman comes from; a shaman is an Indian medicine man, their equivalent of a Western physician.
CURWOOD: You say it has to be something with a history of folk use. How do you get this information?
CONTI: We have a network of ethnobotanists who work in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America,and they're studying how particular cultures and civilizations are using the plants for their own medicinal purposes, to keep themselves healthy.
CURWOOD: Now, are you strictly looking for material that can be used in the Western medical model?
CONTI: Yes, at this point, because Shaman Pharmaceuticals is a commercial organization, and if we don't make that profitable and a viable entity, we're not going to be able to do any good. We're not going to be able to set up a model of a sustainably harvested, non-timber rainforest product, we're not going to be able to put resources back into the Healing Forest Conservancy. Because of that, we have to focus on markets that are fundable and markets that can ultimately bring in a lot of revenue.
CURWOOD: So what are the local people, what do the indigenous people get out of this arrangement?
CONTI: What we have established is a conservation arm called the Healing Forest Conservancy, and what we will do is put a portion of the profits from our products back into the Healing Forest Conservancy, and then back into all the cultures and all the countries in which we're working. Also, when we're developing these products, in some cases we continue to extract them from wild plant material, and what that does is establish indigenous-owned industry in these various countries where they're supplying wild-plant material to us, and they're having an economic alternative to the destruction of the rainforest. They can actually make a living off of leaving the rainforest intact.
CURWOOD: What if success strikes -- imposes the same kind of ethical issues that the yew tree does, for example, in the Pacific Northwest. Now here's a tree that's the source of taxol, which is highly effective against ovarian cancer and other forms of disease, and now this tremendous pressure to strip the bark off those trees and of course it kills them to do that --
CONTI: Uh-huh.
CURWOOD: What if you guys find a substance that is so potent, so curing, in the jungle and it sets off a stampede to get it? Can it be sustainable then?
CONTI: Absolutely, it's a great example. Luckily we have a lot of models of what not to do out there, and that's a great example of something that will never happen to Shaman. We have a very traditional botanical base, and early on in our screening process, we look at the botanical issues, the sourcing issues of a particular compound or a particular raw material before we go forward. So just as important as the efficacy and the toxicity of a particular compound is its supply issue, and a situation like taxol never would have even gotten into animal trials, let alone into human trials, with such a devastating supply situation. We have to do that because we don't want to end up in situations where we're in a big conflict of interest between profitability and product development and conservation issues. And also because for a small company, that's suicide -- you can't put yourself in a situation where you're not going to have a supply of raw plant material.
CURWOOD: Just how big is the potential of this, Lisa Conti? How many medicines are out there for Shaman Pharmaceuticals to get?
CONTI: Well, you have to think that there is an unlimited number out there, there's hundreds of thousands of plants in the rainforest, less than one percent of which has ever been looked at, even crudely for medicinal purposes. Now you have much more sophisticated technology and methodology for looking at these plants. In addition there's still tens of thousands of plants that have a history of folk use, and as long as we can keep the rainforest intact and the genetic diversity alive, there will, I believe, always be plants out there for us to investigate.
CURWOOD: Lisa Conti is the president of Shaman Pharmaceuticals. She spoke with us from her office in San Carlos, California.



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