How Many Cancer Cures Have We Wiped Out Already?

Have you ever seen the movie Medicine Man? Sean Connery plays a researcher deep in the rainforest who has discovered a cure for cancer in a rare flower. The story includes a number of classic tropes of scientific discovery, like “discovering something by accident,” “the irascible professor,” and “the Cassandra Complex.” Connery’s character is ultimately foiled when he is unable to convince his funders of the value of his research or prevent the loggers from destroying the miracle flower forever.

My memories of the film are fuzzy and the response at Rotten Tomatoes suggests it is not a great film, but it does illustrate two important scientific realities: unique, naturally occurring compounds are often a bonanza in drug discovery; and for decades, rainforest species have been disappearing faster than scientists can discover them. Put those two facts together and it’s clear that something like the plot of Medicine Man has certainly already happened, perhaps many times over.

You probably have never heard of Bugula neritina, unless you also came across this recent article in Science. It’s a kind of primitive marine mammal, closely related to mollusks like clams, snails, and squid, though it looks more like a piece of seaweed in its shape and acts more like sponge or coral in its rooted-in-place, filter-feeding lifestyle. Why does this unassuming marine species matter? It produces a substance called bryostatin that scientists think might be a potential cure for cancer, Alzheimer’s, and AIDS. Yes, all of that from one strange marine animal.

The scientists who wrote that article explain that they have finally figured out to synthetically produce the substance that they have been collecting from Bugula neritina and studying in small quantities for years. It’s important to note that, while it is now possible to synthesize bryostatin in the lab, it would not have been possible to get to that point without the research done on the naturally-made stuff to begin with. Similarly, stem cell research, though controversial in some quarters, eventually got to a point where work could be done on non-stem cells, satisfying pro-lifers and those affected by neurological disease or brain and spinal damage alike.

So this raises the question: what if this strange little animal had disappeared years ago, before scientists got to the point of synthesizing this precious material, or perhaps even before the creature had ever been discovered? Everything the 20th century might have said about rainforests, multiply that by 100 for the 21st century oceans. About 70 percent of the planet’s surface is ocean, compared to two percent rainforest.

While the Amazon Rainforest, the world’s largest, has yet to be fully explored, with new species being discovered weekly, the ocean, by contrast is 95 percent unexplored. With the rapid acidification of the ocean due to climate change killing off coral reefs and potentially entire ecosystems, there are certainly a great number of truly unique species and even entire alien ecosystems at risk of disappearing before we ever get to them.

With each species loss, we lose a piece of scientific knowledge, a critical node in the ecological web, and yes, surely, many more miracle cures. Our slow action on climate change, habitat loss, air and water pollution, and other threats to biodiversity casts a longer shadow than most of us realize. Ecology teaches us that every living thing is connected, including us.

Likewise, our energy policy, health policy, international relations, funding for basic research, environmental protection laws, and so many other private and public interests and decisions have an impact on the world and our everyday lives. If we don’t make serious changes on mitigating climate change and species loss, we’ll see how true this is as the consequences reverberate through every other area of our lives.

Photo credit: Peter Woodard

70 comments

Stephanie s
Stephanie sabout a month ago

Too many

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Aaron F
Past Member about a month ago

Why was the (undiagnosed) cancer rate so high when these "cures" were in vogue...? Back when our life expectancy was 47 years...?

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Mike R
Mike R1 months ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike R1 months ago

Thanks

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Kathryn I
Kathryn I1 months ago

Noted. Petition signed previously. Thanks

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Marie P
Marie P1 months ago

TYFS

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janis k
janis keller1 months ago

I bought an acre of rainforest to be saved forever. Google them

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Marianne C
Marianne C1 months ago

If you're an Indian, you may already have heard this joke: before the whites got here with their diseases, the only thing we ever died of was old age or embarrassment. We could cure everything else.

We could also prevent unwanted pregnancy, induce safe abortions, stop profuse bleeding, knew how to distill and use quinine, understood the healing power of bread mold, and knew the uses of what whites would not know as "aspirin" until about 1900.

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Glennis W
Glennis W1 months ago

Very informative Thank you for caring and sharing

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Glennis W
Glennis W1 months ago

Great information and advice Thank you for caring and sharing

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