Medicine and the Protection of Nature

Though never a panacea for the original problems, it is always nice to hear about companies (or people associated with them) working to ameliorate the negative side effects of product production and research. I recently visited the National Botanical Garden and was pleasantly surprised to find a room dedicated to herbal medicines: not “alternative medicines,” but rather, medicines that have been derived from plants throughout human history. It was impressive to see the wide variety of plants that people have used throughout the years, and also learn more about the historical context through which herbal medications were shelved upon the introduction of techniques to allow the production of isolated, purified chemical compounds. The benefits of this change are apparent: chemical compounds are much more uniform in efficacy and effectiveness, easier to store, have longer shelf lives, are easier to regulate and standardize, and are harder to produce (and thus bring their producers lots of money and market share). Many drugs, though, have their origins in nature, and there are substantial government, commercial, and NGO movements aimed at preserving biodiversity, natural habitats, and cultural knowledge of herbal medications that might otherwise be erased by modernization and globalization.


There were two particularly interesting examples of plants being converted into drugs: the Pacific Yew tree producing the cancer drug Taxol/paclitaxel, and star anise providing the key ingredient in Tamiflu/oseltamivir. Interestingly, when paclitaxel was first made, the ingredients had to be isolated from the actual trees: a single tree might provide enough for one gram of the drug. The tree nearly became extinct as people rushed to cut them down and sell them to the pharmaceutical company (Bristol-Myers Squib). Fortunately, chemist Robert Holton was able to synthesize the drug in the lab, thus removing the need to harvest more of the slow-growing trees. (It’s not clear to me whether or not Holton was working with funding from BMS, but I suspect that the company would have seen incentive in developing a method of chemically synthesizing the drug’s main ingredient.) The synthesis for the key ingredient in star anise has not been devised yet (as far as I know), but hopefully Roche (or someone else) is working on that.

It’s important to know the repercussions and unexpected side effects of our actions, and it’s part of our responsibility as human beings to solve the problems we cause.

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