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

September 4, 1992

Air Date: September 4, 1992


Pharmaceutical Prospecting / Bob Carty

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. (12:10)

Drug Company Calls on Traditional Healers

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. (05:05)

The Bear Went Over...To the Pharmacy

Steve talks with ethnobotanist Shawn Sigstedt about recent discoveries that some animals, including some bears and apes, apparently use medicinal plants. (02:59)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Living on Earth, 9/4/92
HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Laura Knoy, Rosetta Robinson, Alexis Muellner, Bob Carty

(Music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. An American drug company is funding a study of Costa Rica's plants and insects. If the company finds any useful medicines, Costa Rica will get royalties to protect its forests, and build its economy.

SITTENFELD: I would say it is a natural resource for the economic development of Costa Rica. I call it green gold.

Also. . . a new pharmaceutical company is using the knowledge of traditional healers, and finding medicinal plants. . . by watching animals.

SIGSTED: They take the root of the bear-root plant and they chew it up and they rub it all over their whole body, and this is an indication that the plant is being used for something other than food.

Those stories . . . this week on Living on Earth. First, this roundup of the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

Five hundred tons of bomb-grade uranium from dismantled Russian atomic weapons will soon become fuel for commercial nuclear power plants in the U-S. From Washington, Laura Knoy reports.

KNOY: The deal is being called the biggest swords-into-plowshares agreement of the post-Cold War era. Russia will receive hard currency for the uranium, and the United States will get low-cost nuclear fuel. The US believes the sale has political benefits too. The more fuel Russia sells, the less it has available for nuclear weapons, and in a statement announcing the deal, President Bush added an election-year pitch, saying, in his words, "The agreement shows how foreign policy accomplishments can promote domestic economic well-being." Some nuclear weapons experts support the concept of using bomb-grade uranium for peaceful purposes. But they oppose shipping such high quality uranium over a long distance, saying if the material falls into the wrong hands, it could easily be made into a bomb. For Living on Earth, I'm Laura Knoy in Washington.

NUNLEY: Thyroid cancers among children living near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster are developing sooner and in larger numbers than scientists expected. World Health Organization researchers say the rate of pediatric thyroid cancer just north of Chernobyl is 80 times normal . . . and the increase began within four years of the 1986 accident, instead of the expected ten or more years. The report suggests the health effects of the Chernobyl accident may be worse than had been thought.

More than 300 square miles of the largest remaining tropical rainforest in North America have been declared a national reserve. The action by the Mexican government bans logging and other commercial activities in the "Selva Lacandona" near the border with Guatemala. Indian communities in the region will be allowed to continue using the forest's resources. Mexican environmentalists have questioned the government's commitment to enforcing the restrictions.

Mercury contamination is on the rise in many of America's inland waterways. That's according to a report by the Clean Water Fund and Clean Water Action. The study says Americans who eat fish from thousands of US lakes and streams risk exposure to high levels of the toxin. From Washington, Rosetta Robinson has the story.

ROBINSON: The study claims coal-fired power plants and garbage incinerators are the main sources of the toxin, which attacks the brain and nervous system. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable. The report says 26 states have issued health advisories, but the most serious contamination is found in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Florida. The study advises worried consumers to check with state health departments to determine if their fish is dangerous. A spokesman from the National Coal Association says reducing emissions may not reduce fish contamination, because there's a lot of mercury already in the environment, including mercury produced naturally. For Living on Earth, this is Rosetta Robinson in Washington.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

As South Florida residents continue to recover from Hurricane Andrew, scientists are begining to assess to storm's impact on sensitive natural areas, including the Everglades. From Miami, Alexis Muellner reports.

MUELLNER: The hurricane's destruction of the Everglades is made much worse by years of human development. One serious man-made problem aggravated by the storm is the proliferation of highly aggressive exotic plant species, like the Australian melalueca tree. The melalueca's seed pods burst under stress, and scientists fear the destructive tree has been scattered to the far ends of the ecosystem. Another concern is fire: much of the area is unnaturally dry, due to years of diverting its water to urban areas. Further dried by the hurricane's fierce winds, experts say the Everglades are more vulnerable to irreversible fire damage this year. Joseph Podgor, director of Friends of the Everglades, says it will take years to assess the hurricane's impact on the region.

PODGOR: We've developed over wetlands, drained the water table, reduced the amount of water in the system and the amount of rainfall. But we aren't smart enough to be able to predict that it is a disaster in the making.

MUELLNER: In addition, Podgor says that the clean-up effort will take its own toll on the South Florida environment. Much of the storm debris will be burned, which could increase already dangerous mercury levels and contribute to acid rain. For Living on Earth, I'm Alexis Muellner in Miami.

NUNLEY: An Icelandic businessman says he has a cheap solution to falling North Atlantic salmon stocks. Backed in part by a grant from the U-S government, Orri Vigfussan is offering to pay fishermen in Greenland to stop fishing for salmon in the open sea. Vigfussan says his plan could boost runs in American rivers within two years. The businessman cut a similar deal with Denmark's Faroe Islanders a year ago, and reportedly it has helped boost salmon returns to European rivers by half.

Meanwhile, the Japanese say they've got a plan to increase the supply of bluefin tuna. Fisheries officials there say they'll begin farming tuna in large fishponds and ocean bays.

That's this week's environmental news. . . I'm Jan Nunley.

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Pharmaceutical Prospecting

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.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

Drug Company Calls on Traditional Healers

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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The Bear Went Over...To the Pharmacy

CURWOOD: Humans may be the only ones to talk about it on the radio, but apparently they are not the only animals to visit nature's pharmacy. According to researchers in the relatively new science of zoo pharmacognocy, some animal species. . . among them apes and bears. . . . have also been found to use medicinal plants. Shawn Sigstedt is an ethnobiologist who has spent a decade studying the bear root in the Rocky Mountains. . . He says he's observed some interesting encounters between the plant and its namesake.

SIGSTED: What the bears do is they take the root of the bear root plant, and they chew it up, and they rub it onto their paws from their mouth,and then they rub it all over their face, and their fur and behind their ears, and then finally over their whole body. And this is an indication that the plant is being used for something other than food. Now small quantities of the plant are also being swallowed.
CURWOOD: What do you suppose the plant does for them medicinally?
SIGSTED: Because the plant is a broad-spectrum medicinal plant, which humans use for rheumatism, arthritis, for stomach problems and for sore muscles, it's very possible that the bear is using the plant for similar reasons. It's also been discovered that there are fungicides within the bear root plant, and it's also been discovered that there are steroids, cardiac lycocides, and coumarins, and these different chemicals have been useful for humans in medicine, and may also be useful for bears.
CURWOOD: What can we as humans learn from bears and these other animals -- I take it, monkeys as well ?
SIGSTED: What can we learn from them? I think we have an opportunity to very rapidly learn some medicinal compounds which are present in plants which would be much more difficult and much more expensive to learn otherwise. In fact, recently I was giving a class, and a Laguna Pueblo young woman was hearing the story and observing the bear in a videotape, and she said that her grandfather, a medicine man, told her that the proper way to use the plant would be to take the plant, rub it, ah, chew it up and then rub it all over her face and her hair. And so it's a fascinating parallel, that both the Native Americans, in many cases, and the bears are using the plant in an identical manner. Since the animals biologically are quite similar to us, we are wise if we use the animals as a guide, as a lead to which plants contain secondary compounds and we're even wiser if we attend to the knowledge of the indigenous people throughout the world.

CURWOOD: Sean Sigsted is an ethnobiologist working in the Rocky Mountains. . . He joined us from the studios of KRCC, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week, that's Living on Earth.

Our program is produced and edited by Peter Thomson and George Homsy. . . with Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Deborah Stavro, Mike Victor and Colleen Singer. Our engineer is Jim St. Louis, with help from Jennifer Loeb and Peter Lydotees . Living on Earth is produced in co-operation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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(Theme up and out)


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