BATE: Rainforests & Pharmaceuticals

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Rainforests and Pharmaceutical

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Rainforests and Pharmaceutical Corporations

There are several pharmaceutical firms involved in rainforest research. This paper will only address three of them:

These corporations are undergoing research in the rainforests for a variety of reasons. The pharmaceutical industry is pouring millions of dollars into these projects, with the participation of the rainforest countries. Scientists are sent in pursuit of collecting tropical plants. They screen these plants with modern techniques to develop new compounds. It may take years to find the new "wonder" drug, but it’s worth it to all concerned.

The companies involved, and the benefits

Since we have limited our research to Merck, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, and Glaxo, the following benefits are the primary focus of our paper.

Importance of Medical Research in the Rainforest

Tropical rainforest only covers a little more than 6 percent of the earth’s entire surface. Inversely related to its size, at least half of all species known, live in the rainforests. While there is a great deal of pharmaceutical research going on in the labs of these particular companies, only 1 percent of all known plant and animal life have been examined for their medicinal potentials. It is estimated that 2 percent of the world’s rainforest are destroyed each year. Scientists calculate that as much as 20 to 25 percent of the world’s plant species will be extinct by the year 2000.

Seventy percent of the 3000 plants identified by the National Cancer Institute as having potential anti-cancer properties are native to the rainforest.

Natural vs. Chemical

Chemical structures from the rainforest can serve as examples from which scientists and researchers can chemically synthesize drug compounds in the labs. For example, the blueprint for aspirin is derived from extracts of the willow tree found in the rainforest! Aspirin, chemically known as salicylic acid, is one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the world to treat disease and symptoms, such as headaches, toothaches or fevers.

The chemical structures of most natural compounds are very complex, and simple extraction is usually less expensive than synthesis. Ninety percent of prescription drugs that are based on higher plant life include direct extractions from the plants. In fact, about 40 percent of modern pharmaceuticals, ranging from penicillin to taxol originated in nature including treatments for:

Business, Sustainable Development and Research

As the pharmaceutical industry work in their labs across the country, a new journey is beginning. They are attempting to develop new products. These companies are realizing that as they progress to develop new treatments for disease, they must also march to a beat of a different drum. They must implement change utilizing sustainable strategies that can translate into new opportunities of drug compounds and improved business. This journey of environmental compliance, through environmental risk management, will develop long term sustainable development to preserve our rainforests. The research information acquired will further assist development of new drug products to treat diseases worldwide. It will also compensate the particular region or country through collaborative synergies with monetary gains.

Why should we do this?

A report issued by the Brundtland-Commission in 1987, concluded that "environmental degradation has been seen as a problem of rich nations, and as a side-effect of industrial development, it is part of the downward spiral of linked ecological and economic decline in which many of the poorest nations are trapped. This viscous cycle leads to environmental degradation, which leads to poverty. The concept of sustainable development, a form of progress that ensures human development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations, is necessary (QUOTE)".

There are various key areas of concern which include:

Challenges to Sustainable Development

The World Commission on Environment and Development recently stated: "Attempts to maintain social and ecological stability through old approaches to development and environmental protection will increase instability. Security must be sought through change. We are the first generation to have knowledge and the financial as well as technical resources to make human development sustainable."

Some of the challenges and environmental burdens that arise are from income, consumption, behavior styles, and quality of governance. The level of technology, which determines the environmental impact of consumption, and the population figures which determines the total impact on the environment are also at fault of destroying our rainforests. The concern about high population growth has become quite serious. Our planet cannot function sufficiently with an increasing number of people. A change of our current way of thinking is needed which will result in political, administrative and economic consequences. We must learn to change our individual lifestyles and consumption patterns in order to sustain the delicate ecological balance necessary to maintain our environment for future generations.

The Effect of Multinational Companies on Development

The presence of multinational corporations in undeveloped countries has been a subject of controversy. There is a correlation of positive contribution to development of economic growth through investments, products and services. The following examples illustrate the manufacturer alliance within the particular region:

The rainforest plants provide aids for research. These plants hold promises for not only treating disease, but also producing a self defense mechanism that could potentially reduce the needs for using pesticides.

For thousands of years, the Shamans and other indigenous peoples have utilized the plants within the rainforest for medicinal purposes. Without money or access to modern healthcare, these people depended on the shamans, herbal healers and rainforest plants to alleviate their medical conditions. There is much to be learned from these "medicine men," and for these reasons the pharmaceutical industry has formed partnerships to tap the knowledge of the land.

Merck and Costa Rica

In efforts to support biodiversity conservation and help protect the rainforest, Merck & Co. has invested over $1.2 million to establish the Nation Institute of Bio-Diversity (INBIO) located in Costa Rica. As an active partner in this joint venture, the Costa Rican government will receive royalties from any natural-drug products developed from this research project. This agreement, in place since 1991, will provide Merck drug-screening capabilities from wild plants, insects and microorganisms. In return, Merck will provide INBIO with a two-year research and sampling budget of approximately $1.2 million. Merck will also provide technical assistance and training to help establish drug research in Costa Rica. Part of the agreement has royalties going to help conserve Costa Rica’s National Park, and to conserve other national parks in the region.

Costa Rica is benefiting from its relationship with INBIO in two ways, in addition to conservation.

  1. The agreement results in a transfer of technological support to Costa Rica. Costa Rican scientists are being trained to discover and extract drugs, and INBIO is assisting in assessing the natural drug products and their usefulness against local diseases indigenous to the region.
  2. Costa Rica stands to gain substantial sums of money from any commercial discovery manufactured by Merck. INBIO was created to undertake a complete inventory of all Costa Rica’s plants and wildlife. The agreement with Merck means the vast flora and fauna species existing will help pay for the project itself, as well as help protect the biodiversity of the rich rainforest region.
  3. Luis Poveda, curator of Costa Rica’s national herbarium, is confident that many medicinal plants used in this region have marketable value. The value that Merck is providing to Costa Rica is truly a start towards sustainable development. The extracting of valuable products from the forest floor will help the transfer of knowledge between both parties, without causing damage. They will develop the capacity to test these plants and provide technical support and education to the region. This is truly a win-win for both Merck, Costa Rica, and future worldwide discoveries to help man.

Bristol-Meyers Squibb and Suriname and Costa Rica

In support with the National Cancer Institute, Bristol-Meyers Squibb (BMS) and the Suriname drug company BGVS are developing a model program for drug discovery in a biodiversity conservation in Suriname, South America. Again, as the research with Merck, plants are collected and screened for bioactivity. Any royalties from the resulting drugs will be shared with Suriname as an economic incentive to maintain their tropical forests. Ninety percent of the country is undisturbed rainforest-the highest of any country in the world.In 1992, BMS set up the Rio Treaty on Bio-Diversity. This cooperative legal authority can negotiate access to the rainforest with the national government of the host country. The agreement provides access to the Shaman people, as well to the forest. In exchange, BMS has set up a Forest Peoples Fund, with up front money, which is used for agricultural projects, technical training and education. This project is unique because it has preserved Shaman knowledge through an apprentice program.BMS has put more than 3000 extracts through 32 screens in six different therapeutic areas. They have found that one extract needs to be tested further. BMS is always trying to identify assays that will correlate better to diseases identified by the Shamans. Again, as with the Merck project in Costa Rica, any royalties would be split among the Suriname government, Shaman peoples, and BMS. Bristol-Meyers Squibb is also involved with the US supported ICBG agreement and INBIO of Costa Rica. This is the same institute that Merck has supported to the developing biodiversity of the region.

Glaxo Corporation and Laos

The information provided here is not in great detail as the previous case studies. This is partly due to the fact that Glaxo is a British company whose reporting on research with foreign biodiversity cultures is not as public as other pharmaceutical manufactures, i.e. Merck and Bristol-Meyers Squibb. However, what is know is that Glaxo is doing research on collecting plants, fungi, microbes and marine organisms from the areas of Asia, and other Latin American countries. Glaxo has obtained materials for synthesizing from Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, National Cancer Institute, and contracts with the Carnivore Preservation Trust, to collect plants in Laos. Together with these collective agreements, the rainforest will be protected, with sustainable development continuing to benefit the rainforest region and better mankind.

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Kevin Brown, Jian Ni, Lorraine Pitek
Business and the Environment, Summer, 1999
June 29, 1999 05:44:01 PM