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Can economics save Suriname rain forest?

Tropical forests have yielded 60 percent of the anti-cancer drugs discovered in the last 10 years  
April 7, 1998
Web posted at: 5:08 p.m. EDT (2108 GMT)

By Environmental News Network staff

(ENN) -- By combining the ancient knowledge of shamans with modern chemical screening techniques and biotechnology, a consortium of chemists, conservationists and botanists have identified potential drugs in the rainforest of Suriname.

The five-year project, led by David Kingston, a professor of chemistry at Virginia Tech, aims to discover new drugs to treat human ills and give the small South American country economic reasons to preserve the biodiversity of its forests.

So far the researchers working on the Suriname biodiversity utilization and conservation project have identified one novel compound with anti-cancer activity that has made it through several stages of tests at Bristol-Meyers Squibb.

After conducting some 14,000 assays of more than 3,300 extracts, Virginia Tech has identified 30 different, unique extracts that have activity and has isolated 20 chemical compounds that have bioactivity. "You've got to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince," Kingston says.

Rare plants discovered The most interesting compounds Virginia Tech has discovered are a group of alkaloids from Eclipta alba that have good antifungal activity, better in some cases than the clinically used drug amphotericin B. However, they also had weak cytotoxicity, and the decision was thus made not to develop them as antifungal agents.

In another example, graduate student John Berger has been able to enhance the anticancer activity of a new compound by synthesizing analogs, Kingston reports. "Now we're looking for others with more activity from which we can make analogs."

The MBG biodiversity survey has also resulted in the discovery of five rare plants and one plant not previously found in Suriname. Suriname is in the top 50 countries in the world in the richness of its biodiversity.

Tropical forests have been the source of 60 percent of the anti-cancer drugs discovered in the last 10 years and offer a potentially huge economic reason for preserving the forest, based on the $200-billion market for plant-derived drugs.

The allure of lumber

Three men
The team hopes to extend the project to Madagascar, where there are many plants that exist nowhere else  
But the pace of discovery and development may be too slow compared to the certain, immediate payoffs from lumber sales.

"The Surinamese government was planning a large-scale timber concession," Kingston said, "but the people from Conservation International emphasized that by selling the forest, the country would lose its benefits down the road."

A working group within the government is now drafting a national biodiversity strategy using a biodiversity database developed by CI.

Drugs developed from Surinamese plants will result in revenue for the country. And CI has been identifying non-timber forest products to determine their viability as sustainable products.

However, there are currently few short-term incentives to reduce deforestation of the rainforests.

Loss of biodiversity through deforestation not only removes materials that could be used to create pharmaceuticals, but eliminates herbal remedies -- a primary source of health care in many countries -- and accelerates the loss of traditional knowledge. One of the contributions of the Suriname project has been to preserve the shamans' knowledge, not only in modern databases, but through a shamans' apprentice program.

The five-year research project is supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The team hopes to continue the work in Suriname with a new contract, and to extend the project to Madagascar, where there is more diversity than in Suriname and many plants that exist nowhere else in the world.

Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved


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