Next March, Travel Dynamics International will be embarking upon a tremendous journey up the Amazon – more than 2,000 miles from Belem, on the Atlantic coast, to Iquitos, in Peru.
On Monday, The Guardian brought us this tremendous story about medical researchers who are hunting for natural medicines, and cures for everything from cancer to AIDS, amid the dizzying biodiversity of the Amazon.
Tom Phillips, in Rio, writes:
TODAY, SPURRED on by an obsession with the Amazon and nearly 40 years as an oncologist, Varella leads monthly expeditions up the Cuieiras river in search of natural medicines that he believes could change the future of his profession and eventually bring new hope to cancer victims around the world.
“[As a child] I didn’t even know that [the Amazon] existed,” Varella told the Observer during his latest mission to the group’s base on the Cuieiras river. “I’d heard the children’s stories, about the Indians with two feathers in their hair. But you didn’t even talk about the Amazon back then. It was such a distant thing.”
That changed in October 1992, during a trip to the Amazon with Robert Gallo, the US biomedical researcher credited with co-discovering the HIV virus. One afternoon, while visiting the rivers around Manaus, Gallo inquired if anyone was looking for new medicines in the plants and trees of the Amazon.
“You can see the biodiversity here ,” recalled Varella. “And Gallo said to me: ‘Who is studying this? [Who is] looking for activity in these species?’ And I didn’t know what to tell him. This idea stayed in my head.”
In 1995 the idea became a reality with the first trip. Since then Varella’s team has gathered more than 2,000 extracts from plants and trees in the rainforest. This year sees a step change in activity following a partnership with São Paulo’s Sírio-Libanês Hospital, one of Brazil’s leading research institutes. The team will explore a new area further up the Rio Negro towards the border with Colombia, and within two years they aim to have set up a third base.
After being plucked from the rainforest the samples are taken to Manaus, where they are dried and transformed into a powder before being shipped to São Paulo for testing. Over 70 extracts have demonstrated some impact on tumour cells while over 50 have shown results against bacterial infections.
“The advantage of these natural products is their unpredictability,” said Varella. While molecular design techniques used by laboratories would remain crucial, natural products could suggest paths “we didn’t even imagine existed,” he said, citing Taxol, a drug which originated from the bark of the North American yew tree and is now widely used to treat ovarian and breast cancer. “You open the door to the unknown.”
Paciencia believes medical research could also hold the key to slowing rainforest destruction. Environmentalists claim that almost 20% of the Brazilian Amazon has disappeared, mostly since the 1960s.
“Instead of replacing the forest with cattle we are studying a cure for cancer and for infectious diseases,” said the botanist… <Read more>