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PALM LATITUDES

THINGS TO COME : Rain Forest Remedies

October 09, 1994|Michael Tennesen

Most drugs these days are the products of sterile tinkerings of lab assistants and scientists, but in a lab at UC San Diego, FDA officials are testing potential wonderdrug with a very different geneology. Provir, which purportedly attacks a number of respiratory viruses, is made using the secret recipe of an Ecuadoran medicine man.

That fact hasn't stopped investors, including Eli Lilly & Co., from putting up $52 million for research on this and a number of other Shaman Pharmaceutical drugs--including a topical ointment for herpes and an oral medicine for infant influenza which are are in the second stage of FDA testing in San Diego , the formulas which were all bought from medicine men (or medicine women).

Shaman, which is based in South San Francisco and has investors and researchers throughout the state, is not peddling magic, says founder and president Lisa Conte. It's simply letting the medicine men whittle down the number of plants they have to screen. "Rather than going through 10,000 plants or other sources of chemical diversity to get a hit, we start with a much smaller number."

For five years, Shaman has tracked down wonder drugs by sending teams (a botanist to identify the plant, and a physician to identify the disease) to visit medicine men in rain forests around the world. To rule out religious or even placebo affects, they try to find medicines used for the same purpose in three other geographical areas.

Conte thinks the rain forest is cornucopia of pharmaceuticals. "The tropical areas of the world contain over 50% of the Earth's flora. Less than 1% have been investigated for medicinal purposes, and about 20- to 25% of the U.S. pharmaceuticals (including aspirin) are plant or plant-derived compounds."

Plus it's ecological. When the profits start rolling in, the company planned to put money back into the rain forest though their own Healing Forest Conservancy. Right now, however, Shaman is still spending.

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