When people discuss the loss of rainforest habitat and biodiversity, inevitably conversation turns to the medical what-ifs. It’s a well-known fact that quinine, the first truly effective treatment for malaria, was derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, native to Peru and Bolivia: a discovery that has saved millions of lives since the 17th century. Less familiar are drugs like vincristine and vinblastine – used to treat pediatric leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease – which come from the rosy periwinkle of Madagascar; and neostigmine, a glaucoma drug derived from the African Calabar bean.
Even curare, renowned as a deadly toxin used by natives of Amazon Basin to poison arrowheads and blowgun darts, yields muscle relaxants useful in such medical applications as eye surgery. And most of our cortisone supply comes from Central American wild yams. The experimental anti-HIV drug Calanolide A almost never happened, because the stand of Calophyllum lanigerum trees in Sarawak from which it was first sampled in 1987 was cleared by the time scientists came back looking for more. Luckily, a few specimen trees were eventually found in a botanical garden in Singapore, enabling chemists to create a synthetic version.
Among the researchers racing to find cures for deadly diseases within the world’s threatened ecosystems is renowned ethnobotanist Dr. Paul Alan Cox, director of the Brain Chemistry Labs in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. His foundation, Seacology, has set aside over 1.5 million acres of rainforest and coral reef in 56 countries around the world, primarily for medical research purposes. Dr. Cox’s current focus is on finding new treatments for ALS and Alzheimer’s disease. Aside from common concerns about ecological issues, that makes his work of especial relevance to Northeasterners, considering recent indications that ALS may be connected to late-stage Lyme disease.
Intrigued? Check out the latest installment in the Elizabeth Gross Lecture Series, sponsored by the Ulster Garden Club and the Ulster Community College Foundation, Inc. At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, April 10, Dr. Paul Alan Cox will give a lecture titled “Ethnobotany and the Search for New ALS & Alzheimer’s Drugs in Island Villages” in the College Lounge, Room 203 of Vanderlyn Hall on the SUNY-Ulster campus. This event is free and open to the public. For more information, call the UCC Foundation office at (845) 687-5283.