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Loss Of Biodiversity Hampers Medical Cures

Endangered blue poison arrow frog, from "Sustaining Life"
Oxford University Press
The world risks losing new medical treatments for cancer, osteoporosis and other ailments if it does not act quickly to conserve the planet's biodiversity, a senior U.N. environment official said Wednesday.

Earth's organisms offer many naturally occurring chemicals with which scientists could develop new medicines - but many such organisms are threatened by extinction, said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEP.

"We must do something about what is happening to biodiversity," Steiner told reporters. "We must help society understand how much we already depend on diversity of life to run our economies, our lives, but more importantly, what are we losing in terms of future potential."

Steiner was announcing the conclusions of a new medical book on the sidelines of the UNEP-organized Business for the Environment conference in Singapore. About 600 business executives and environment experts took part in the two-day conference, which ended Wednesday.

The book "Sustaining Life" is based on work by more than 100 experts and is supported by various organizations including the UNEP, Steiner said. Its main authors are based at Harvard Medical School.

"Because of science and technology ... we are in a much better position to unlock this ingenuity of nature found in so many species," he said. "Yet, in many cases, we will find that we have already lost it before we were able to use it."

He mentioned the example of the southern gastric brooding frog, discovered in Australian rain forests in the 1980s.

The female frog raises her young in her stomach. Preliminary studies showed that the baby frogs produced substances that protect them from their mother's digestive enzymes and acids - and could have led to insights on treating human peptic ulcers, Steiner said. The frog has become extinct, however, according to the book.

Last year, the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species labeled more than 16,000 species as threatened with extinction.

Steiner said the book looks at seven groups of threatened organisms for potential or known medical value: amphibians, bears, cone snails, sharks, non-human primates, horseshoe crabs and gymnosperms, a type of plant life.

Several drugs such as the widely used cancer drug Taxol have been isolated from gymnosperms. The book's researchers believe many more possibilities exist.

They also believe some bears might produce a substance that could stave off the bone-wasting disease osteoporosis in humans.