With the loss of plant and animal diversity, we’re losing the chance to discover new medicines that could end the suffering of millions of people and save national economies billions of dollars each year.
The immense potential of Nature has been recognized for many years with more than 70,000 plant species being used in traditional and modern medicine. Aspirin was originally derived from salicin, extracted from the willow tree. Cancer-fighting drugs have been developed from the Rosy Periwinkle plant, and many groups of animals from bears to sharks, provide important research models that can help us understand and fight disease.
Although polar bears have become iconic figures in discussions on what we stand to lose with climate change, people rarely realize their medical potential. Hibernating polar bears have compounds in their blood streams that may allow us to prevent and treat osteoporosis, a huge public health problem. They also become massively obese feeding on seal blubber prior to hibernating, but they don’t develop Type 2 diabetes, as people tend to when they become obese. These attributes must be studied in the wild but we will lose this critical opportunity if we lose polar bears.
Cone snails, a large group of predatory snails, defend themselves and kill their prey by firing poison-coated harpoons. These toxins have provided important new compounds for medicines. One has been developed as a painkiller which is considered far more potent and safer than morphine. Cone snails may provide more leads to new drugs than any other group of organisms. And yet they live in coral reefs which are threatened by climate change around the world.
Amphibians also contribute to human medicine in many ways. Chemicals they contain may lead to new painkillers and drugs to treat high blood pressure. The Waxy Monkey Frog from South America manufactures potent antibiotics in its skin that attack bacteria and fungi, including some that cause infections in people with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS. And yet, more than a third of all known amphibian species are threatened with extinction.
It is clear that environmentalists and scientists from a wide range of disciplines must work together to convince people that human health depends ultimately on the health of our species and ecosystems.
Read more about the links between biodiversity and human health in a recent issue of IUCN’s magazine World Conservation.