For ages, traditional remedies derived from plants were the primary form of medical care for the world's people. For three-quarters of the global population, they still are.
But in the United States, medical researchers have generally been lukewarm at best about investigating the undeniable curative properties of plants. This is not just a prejudice in favor of modern medicine; isolating specific plant compounds can be a difficult technical task.
That attitude is now changing.
The chemical interaction of plant and animal compounds is better understood, robots are now available that can screen plant samples around the clock, and researchers are turning increasingly to plants in their search for cures to the worst maladies of our time, including AIDS, cancer and heart disease.
The problem now is that the plants are disappearing -- victims of tropical deforestation -- faster than they can be investigated for their medical value.
Alarmed at the prospect, an improbable alliance has come riding to the rescue. It is made up of conservationists, pharmaceutical companies, academic scientists, traditional healers and the governments and entrepreneurs of developing countries.
Although often suspicious of each other in the past, they are joining forces in the belief that tropical forests are vital to all of their long-term interests and are worth more if they are preserved as economic assets than cut down to make farmland.
The spearhead of this crusade is a pair of ingenious efforts to exploit the forests on behalf of medicine.
The plans were described at a symposium held recently at Rockefeller University. The gathering was organized jointly by the Rain Forest Alliance, a non-profit conservation organization, and the New York Botanical Gardens' Institute of Economic Botany.
In one project, a Costa Rican research institute is prospecting for promising plants, microorganisms and insects to be screened for medical use by Merck & Co., the world's largest drug company. Merck, in turn, is supporting the prospecting effort financially and will share any resulting profits with Costa Rica.
The Costa Rican government, which has set aside 25 percent of its land as forest preserves, will use the royalties and some of the payments to support its conservation efforts.
In the second enterprise, a small California company called Shaman Pharmaceuticals is tapping the expertise of traditional healers -- hamans, or medicine men -- in various parts of the tropics. Shaman, less than 2 years old, says it already appears to have made its first big "hit." The company has isolated a compound from a medicinal plant in South America that it says is active against the influenza and herpes viruses. Shaman has filed a patent, and the drug is well into clinical trials. If it or other drugs ultimately generate profits, the company intends to promote conservation of the forests by channeling some of its profits back to the localities whose medicine men provided the ++ key plants.
The theory behind both ventures is that everybody wins: the world gets new drugs, the pharmaceutical companies earn profits, and people in the tropics are justly compensated for their "intellectual property" and their collection efforts.
In this way, the local people are encouraged to protect the source of the compensation and the forests are preserved, so they can fulfill vital ecological and environmental functions like stabilizing the planet's climate. "It's out of the realm of an academic exercise now," Dr. Michael Balick, director of the Institute of Economic Botany, said of the concept.
Chemical prospecting and intellectual property rights "are terms I'd never heard of," Richard Deertrack, tribal administrator in the Office of the War Chief at Taos Pueblo, N.M., and an herbalist, told the conferees as last week's meeting was ending.
But by then, although he expressed concern that the rights and sensitivities of indigenous peoples be respected, he had heard enough to "commend" Merck and Shaman.
The discovery in the 1930s of the curare plant, which provides a muscle relaxant, stimulated drug researchers' interest in plants for a time, as did the discovery in the 1960s that the rosy periwinkle could be used to treat childhood leukemia and Hodgkin's disease.
But more recently, although the National Institute of Health was screening plants for medical utility, the prevailing attitude in commercial laboratories was that "plant research was old-fashioned or even flaky," Christina Findeisen, a management consultant to the pharmaceutical industry, said at the meeting.
With increasing knowledge about the chemical mechanisms whereby plant compounds act on disease, and especially with the advent of rapid, high-capacity, automated screening equipment, interest has revived and plant research is growing.