"I’m sorry, sir, but the drug that might have treated your cancer was unfortunately all used up in last year’s harvest, and the trees from which it came just aren’t around any more.” These truly are words you do not want to hear in a doctor’s office.
While they seem so tiny, all those little pills that slide across the counter mount up to a mammoth environmental effect. Every year manufacturers create 3 million tons of drugs, bringing in gross global sales of $643 billion, of which the U.S. devours almost half. Considering that most of the natural elements in these medications are boiled into highly distilled extracts, the actual tonnage of trees, shoots, and leaves used is immense.
Realizing that no resource is infinite, Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Institute for Sustainable Pharmacy will grapple with this challenge in its annual breakfast seminar, “Sustainability in Pharmacy — From the Jungle to the Patient.” This event will be held on Friday, June 17, at 7:30 a.m. at FDU’s College at Florham, in Madison. Cost: $40. Visit www.fdu.edu/files/june11brkflyer.pdf.
Speakers will include Ruth Nemire, founding dean of FDU’s Medco School of Pharmacy, and Susan Snodgrass, senior director of clinical research at Novartis Oncology.
Daughter of a preacher father and a social worker mother in Ohio, Nemire credits her parents for her lifelong interest in community engagement. Yet the scientific aspect of her career sparked strictly within her own mind. In 1984 she graduated from Ohio Northern University with her bachelor’s in pharmaceutical science. She earned her PharmD at the University of Toledo and doctorate of education from Nova Southeastern University.
Throughout her career she has served as director for clinical drug trials research at the Center for Neurology Studies in Lubbock, Texas. While there, she investigated treatments for Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and migraines. Moving to Florida, Nemire joined Southeastern University’s College of Pharmacy, acting for 10 years as director of both clinical education and community engagement.
At Touro College in New York, while overseeing the professional practice curriculum, she engineered an immunization program for high-risk influenza in Harlem. Nemire is also the author of “Pharmacy Student Survival Guide” (McGraw Hill).
“Pharmaceutical sustainability goes far beyond mere conservation,” says Nemire. “It involves an entire complex web of regional societies, economies, agriculture, and purity of material.” She cites the example of the much sought after Camu Camu tree.
#b#Vitamin C, naturally#/b#. Down in the Amazonian lowlands of Peru, near the river’s source, the low, richly bearing Camu Camu tree pokes through the floodplain waters. For centuries locals have paddled amongst them in canoes and, after the rains, harvested the purplish-red, lemon-sized fruits. Tartly tasty, the pulp is a traditional rainforest people’s medicine, more recently employed to aid the blood, boost energy, mood, and immune systems, and to flavor ice cream.
One more thing — Camu Camu is the highest-yielding source of Vitamin C on the planet. It has more than 30 times the C content of oranges or lemons. Therein lies the profit and the problem.
Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, in his book “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice,” notes that “a forest stand of Camu Camu is worth twice the amount to be gained from cutting down the forest and replacing it with cattle.” At first glance, this seems like a win-win for all concerned. The Amazonians finally get a chance to reap the economic benefits of their land with a cash crop other than cocaine.
Trouble is, the world’s thirst for natural Vitamin C is virtually unquenchable, and everybody harvests the low-hanging fruit first. “This over-harvesting severely interrupts the food chain,” says Nemire. In addition to funding and treating native homo sapiens, the Camu Camu fruit drops into the broad upper reaches of the Amazon flood plain, becoming a primary staple for the fish in the rivers. Without the fruit, fish begin to dwindle. The people and the freshwater dolphins that hunt these waters go increasingly hungry.
#b#Going synthetic#/b#. Certainly, the tedious-but-fruitful study of examining natural curative substances and teasing out a single active, synthetically reproducible molecule holds great benefit. The extraction and refinement of the Pacific yew tree’s bark and needles, for example, has yielded the clear, colorless drug Taxol, which has become a highly effective treatment for breast and ovarian cancers.
But the story of Taxol’s development most clearly indicates the need for sustainable harvesting. The yew of the Pacific northwest was initially identified as an anti-cancer hopeful in 1967. The enthusiastic trials that led to Taxol’s development led to the destruction of so many mature yew trees that when actual production time came almost the whole crop was extinguished. Asia Minor, southeast Asia, and even the Himalayas are being scoured for extracts.
“We don’t need to chop these down to create our medicines and treatments,” says Nemire. In areas where first, virgin forest is gone, such as most of Brazil, second forests may be wisely planted and harvested according to environmental considerations. One tree of Camu Camu yields an average of 25-plus pounds of berries. Two acres may produce five tons of saleable fruit.
“The yew tree reaches way back into human history,” says Nemire. “The Druids in the British Isles were said to inhabit them. Similarly, other native peoples still connect with the beneficial powers that their local plants bestow upon them. This knowledge and the medicines of these peoples are not to be denied.”
The National Cancer Institute, among its many other research programs, boasts one small, underfunded, but vital program that examines tens of thousands of natural substances for their oncological treatment potential. Programs such as this might just offer a two-pronged attack against the epidemic of cancer.
First, from some obscure plant may spring the potion that could squelch tumor growth after it has started. The second benefit could come from a better management of our rainforests and natural areas in whose salvation most assuredly lies our own.