Searching for Cures
There are scientists from around the globe who are busy searching our oceans and rainforests for new chemical compounds that can be sent back to the laboratory to be screened against known targets of human diseases. Having a reaction could mean the first step in developing a life-saving drug. The samples are coming from the natural world; plants, insects, animals, bacteria and fungi. In many cases there is a rush to explore some of the more remote areas before they succumb to human encroachment and the opportunity to find a potential candidate that could lead to a cure is lost.
Such is the case for researchers who have been combing the Amazonian Rainforest looking for Inga shrubs, which contain powerful toxins that could be useful to medical research. They have focused their efforts in the Ecuadorian Yasuni National Park. A section of the Amazonian Rainforest where researchers have found 60 species of Inga plants 40 of which were previously unknown to science. The mysteries of the Yasuni rainforest are many and they are at risk. Under the forest lies oil. The pressure to extract the oil is tremendous and the collateral damage would be irreparable.
It's not just the Rainforests that offer hope in curing the ailments of humankind. Our oceans and wetlands are offering some remarkable possibilities. Sponges, tunicates, sea anemones, corals, marine invertebrates and microorganisms are being investigated. Marine organisms produce a variety of chemical defenses to defend against predators. The chemicals react with the predators biological receptors much in the same way drug molecules interact in humans. Fungi and bacteria collected from the Everglades by the University of South Florida are being tested to develop a potential cure for MRSA (Methicillin Staphylococcus). The University has also had success with a starfish from Antarctica. Its chemical defenses shows promise as a cure for the biggest disease problem of the modern world-Malaria.
Then there is the curious case of the Bryozoan. A creature found in all the waterways of the world. A Bryozoan is a small creature about .5 millimeter in size, it lives in colonies and is a filter feeder. There are about 4000 known species but one in particular came from the waterways of the Florida Panhandle. In 1968 the National Cancer Institute, a Department of Health and Human Services placed an order for Bryozoans with a biological specimen collector from Panacea, Florida.
A class of drugs called Bryostatins were created from the Bryozoans as an anti-cancer chemotherapy. Then fate stepped in. During the course of the research a study patient with Alzheimer's began to regain his memory. Scientists discovered the drug’s hidden potential to stop Alzheimer’s disease and repair the damage it creates. Bryostatins have proven to be effective in rewiring connections in the brain that were previously destroyed by stroke, head trauma, or by the effects of aging.
The answers to our ailing planet and the ailments of humankind have been right under our noses and the natural world needs to be protected. Humankind's very existence will someday depend on a vibrant and diverse planet. Allowing the destruction of our oceans and rainforests means eminent extinction of millions of life forms including humankind. Our survival and Earths survival are contained in the vast libraries of the natural world. It is our responsibility in a world of technology and innovation to make science literacy for our youth a national priority. The next generation of scientists will finish the work begun by the current generation and go on to create their own discoveries.