January 21, 2008

Many Medicinal Plants on Verge of Extinction

Hundreds of plants used to produce over half of the world's prescription drugs and potential treatments for many illnesses such as cancer and HIV are at risk of becoming extinct, warned experts at the Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) in a report issued this month.

According to the report, over 70,000 plant species are thought to be medicinal, and loss of habitat and over-harvesting threatens the survival of hundreds of these species.

In drawing their conclusions, BGCI, which represents botanic gardens across 120 countries, surveyed over 600 of its members as well as leading university experts.

They identified 400 plants at risk of extinction.  Many of these hold tremendous significance for both current and potentially new treatments. 

For example, Yew trees, the bark of which forms paclitaxel, is one of the most widely used cancer drugs worldwide.  However, since it takes six trees to create a single dose the supply is at risk. 

Half the world's magnolia species are also at risk, in this case from deforestation.  Magnolia has been used for over 5,000 years in traditional Chinese medicine, and is believed to help fight heart disease and  cancer. 

Hoodia, originally from Namibia, has attracted such widespread interest as a weight loss treatment that it is now on the verge of extinction due to over-harvesting as companies attempt to find a  miracle weight loss cure. 

Autumn crocus, one of the most effective treatments for gout, is at risk from horticulture trade, BBC news reported.  

"In many cases modern chemistry cannot offer viable alternatives to active botanical compounds," the authors wrote in the report.

"Predictions that advances in chemical sciences and synthetic material development would lessen the need for natural materials have proved to be wrong, and modern medicine depends on the continuing availability of biological materials as an incomparable source of molecular diversity."

The report said future breakthroughs are being put at risk, and experts expressed fear that illnesses like cancer and AIDS might never be cured if the plants become extinct. They said the situation was likely to have consequences for the developing world, since five billion people still rely on traditional plant-based medicine as their primary form of health care.

"The loss of the world's medicinal plants may not always be at the forefront of the public consciousness," said report author Belinda Hawkins in a BBC news report. "However, it is not an overstatement to say that if the precipitous decline of these species is not halted, it could destabilize the future of global healthcare."


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Botanical Gardens Conservation International