Killing the cures: how biodiversity loss is harming medical science
Editorial by Achim Steiner, Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein
09 September 2010 - Biodiversity is essential for the functioning of ecosystems - from forests and fresh waters to coral reefs, soils, and even the atmosphere - that sustain all life on Earth. The ongoing and escalating disappearance of that diversity will harm society in myriad ways. One way that is often overlooked is the damaging impact on medical science.
For millennia, medical practitioners have harnessed substances from nature for treatments and cures: aspirin from the willow and, more recently, Taxol - the groundbreaking anti-cancer drug - from the bark of the Pacific yew. Some of the biggest breakthroughs may be yet to come. But this can happen only if nature's cornucopia is conserved, so that current and future generations of researchers can make new discoveries that benefit patients everywhere.
Consider the polar bear, threatened with extinction in the wild by climate change. These mammals spend up to seven months of the year hibernating, during which time they are essentially immobile. A human would lose a third or more of bone mass when immobile for this period of time.
Astonishingly, hibernating bears lay down new bone, by producing a substance that inhibits cells that break down bone and promotes those that produce bone and cartilage. Studying hibernating bears in the wild may lead to new ways of preventing the millions of hip fractures that result from osteoporosis - a disease that costs $18 billion and kills 70,000 people each year in the United States alone.
While hibernating bears can also survive for seven months or more without excreting their urinary wastes, humans would die from the buildup of these toxic substances after only a few days. Unraveling how the bears accomplish this miraculous feat may offer hope to the estimated 1.5 million people worldwide receiving treatment for kidney failure.