Conserving Nature to Protect our Health
Brent McCreesh is a happy, healthy second grader, but if he were born 10 years ago he might not have even made it to preschool. Brent was diagnosed with neuroblastoma – an aggressive cancer — when he was just 2 years old. Thanks in part, however, to a medicine created from molecules identified in an African flower, an American mayapple tree and a soil bacterium, doctors were able to save his life.
Treatment of Brent’s cancer brought us – his mother and one of the many doctors who participated in his treatment – together. Our experience also gave us a profound appreciation for the important role nature plays in treating human disease. Now, we feel it is time to speak out on behalf of nature’s medicine cabinet, which is growing smaller every day.
Few people realize that half of all new medicines are based on chemical compounds that come from nature. This includes many treatments used for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, HIV, and other conditions that affect millions. A staggering 70 percent of all cancer drugs contain an active ingredient derived from nature.
Compounds found in a Caribbean sea sponge led to new anticancer and antiviral drugs. In Borneo, an anti-HIV compound emerged from research on the sap of a rainforest tree. A compound found in the venom of a Brazilian snake, the pit viper, is used to treat hypertension. And researchers are examining substances found in the skin of South American frogs for the possibility they may hold the key to stopping AIDS. The rosy periwinkle, a plant found in Madagascar, is the source of vincristine – a drug that was instrumental in Brent’s cancer treatment.
The places that house plants and organisms critical to the development of new drugs often lie far from the hospital or pharmacy. Most of the world’s species live outside our borders, in the forests and along the coastlines of developing countries in the tropics.
And even as scientists and researchers strive to develop new and better medications from substances found in nature, we are rapidly destroying the places from where this raw material comes. An area of forest the size of Costa Rica is destroyed each year, and one-third of coral reefs are already gone. Scientists estimate that half of all the world’s species could be on the brink of extinction by the end of this century.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that with current extinction rates, we lose one major new drug every two years. In all likelihood, many of nature’s keys to unlocking disease are already gone. Sadly, many poor countries lack the tools and funds to protect habitat for plants and animals.
A bipartisan bill in Congress, called the Global Conservation Act of 2010, aims to protect the local branches of nature’s pharmacy all over the world before they’re put out of business permanently. It would address global extinction by establishing a U.S. strategy to help developing nations protect large areas of natural habitat. It then asks the administration to get other nations around the world, including newly wealthy countries like China and India, to work with us to help poorer countries.
Many cancer survivors like Brent recently traveled to Washington to support the bill and to tell their representatives how much natural areas in developing countries have affected their lives. While some politicians were sympathetic, some were skeptical about taking any action that could be seen as helping poor countries when we have so many needs here at home.
But one in three Americans will be affected by a disease with a treatment derived from nature. That means we all probably know someone who has or could one day benefit from these medicines.
Without medications derived from several natural areas around the world, Brent would likely not have survived his cancer. We cannot let the tools to fight diseases that affect so many of our loved ones fall by the wayside. The places we need to save may be far away, but the benefits could not possibly hit closer to home.
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Dana McCreesh is the mother of a cancer survivor who received anticancer medicines derived from nature. Sam Blackman is a pharmaceutical researcher and a pediatric oncologist who helped treat McCreesh’s son.
photo credit: thanks to the McCreesh family for the adorable picture of Brent
By DANA MCCREESH AND SAMUEL BLACKMAN