Healing with good nature

February 26, 1999

If a plant can cure cancer, Paul Alan Cox is willing to hang out of a helicopter to find it, writes Julia Hinde

Paul Alan Cox has brought us natural shampoos and award-winning foot cream, he has patented a potential HIV drug and has single-handedly, and through his foundation, saved thousands of acres of rainforest. But so far, he has failed miserably in the quest for his holy grail - a natural cure for breast cancer. Now he fears a natural cure - if one exists - may be long gone before he or anyone else in the developed world recognises its potential.

Cox, the King Carl Gustaf professor of environmental science at Upsala University in Sweden and director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii, is an ethnobotanist. He examines the links between man and plants and he offers an ominous warning - that the earth is undergoing a period of mass extinction. Using figures compiled by the United Kingdom's chief scientist, Sir Robert May - who estimates that 11 per cent of the world's birds and up to 9 per cent of plants are under threat - Cox predicts a natural catastrophe.

He warns that it is not just biodiversity that is being lost at an alarming rate, but also the language and unwritten knowledge of peoples who use natural remedies for medicinal purposes. "In 1900 there were 6,000 languages spoken on this planet," Cox says. "600 are now extinct, a further 2,400 are threatened. Plant lore is disappearing."

Sitting in Cox's Kaua'i office, overlooking the lush botanical gardens that lead down to the breaking surf of the Pacific, his assertion that Hawaii is the world's extinction capital is hard to believe. But a trip to the northern Na Pali coast of Kaua'i - the oldest of the inhabited Hawaiian islands - reveals hillside, once home to a vast array of plant, insect and bird species, now carpeted in an alien umbrella of plants that have devastated the environment.

On Hawaii and throughout southeast Asia, Cox and his colleagues are taking an aggressive approach to conservation. They are using mountaineering skills as well as helicopters - from which they suspend themselves with rope - to collect seeds from hard-to-get-at sites where near-extinct species have their last foothold. Cox is gathering seeds and bringing them to his botanical garden, or "ark", to grow and preserve.

The garden - where Stephen Spielberg filmed Jurassic Park - represent a vast ethnobotanical research resource containing huge numbers of species, some of which may have amazing pharmacological potential.

"We believe what we are doing is far more important than Jurassic Park," Cox says, standing among the vast roots of a Moreton Bay fig tree, location for dinosaur eggs in the film. "If I had to chose between recreating extinct dinosaurs or saving plants, I would choose the plants. I doubt a brontosaurus could produce drugs, but we know that plants yield 25 per cent of all pharmaceuticals."

After the death of his mother in 1984, from breast cancer, Cox took a year's sabbatical and went with his family to Samoa, a chain of islands in the South Pacific. "It was a personal crisis and I wanted to make a contribution to the study of breast cancer. I decided the best thing to do would be to study local medicine, so I looked for the remotest island, Savaii, and village, Falupeo, where we spent a year without electricity or running water."

But his attempt to find a solution for breast cancer was "a complete failure. Indigenous people have a hard time diagnosing cancer. But I did notice the healer using a specific plant for hepatitis."

Cox sent samples back to the US, but found few laboratories interested in testing the plant's pharmacology. He did find collaborators in Sweden and took to Upsala his complete collection of Samoan plant medicines. "We found 86 per cent of the plants showed amazing pharmacological activity."

The hunt was on for specific drugs - anti-inflammatories and immunostimulants. A collaboration with the US National Cancer Institute showed Cox's hepatitis plant stopped cells being invaded by the HIV virus. It led to the development of the drug Prostatin as a potential part of a new combination therapy for Aids. Prostatin has been patented, with half of any profits from the licence secured for the local peoples of Samoa, in "one of the first examples of legal recognition of indigenous intellectual property rights", Cox says.

He also noted an anomaly: "15 per cent of indigenous plants are used for skin diseases, yet only 1 per cent of western medicine is dermatological. I decided skin care could be important, so spoke with indigenous people about how they took care of their teeth and skin." The result was the Epoch brand for Nu Skin International, which now sells worldwide. Firewalker, a foot cream, was last year named top product in Woman magazine's beauty awards.

CULTIVATING A WORLD-CLASS LABORATORY

Though the National Tropical Botanical Garden has a small staff and little in the way of traditional laboratories, Paul Alan Cox is already pulling in stars.

Ghillean Prance, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, is the latest big name to be netted. Barry Tomlinson, the Jeffrey professor of biology at Harvard University, is already researching there.

Sir Ghillean, who retires from Kew this summer, will become the McBryde professor from June 2000 - once he has finished helping to build a rainforest in a Cornish clay mine. Once on Kaua'i, he plans to spend a year researching the coco plum families, until recently thought to be relatives of the rose.

With the help of such big name researchers, Cox is confident he can transform the garden into the world's ethnobotany research capital - a scientific research garden with a conservation focus.

CULTIVATING A WORLD-CLASS LABORATORY

Though the National Tropical Botanical Garden has a small staff and little in the way of traditional laboratories, Paul Alan Cox is already pulling in stars.

Ghillean Prance, director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, is the latest big name to be netted. Barry Tomlinson, the Jeffrey professor of biology at Harvard University, is already researching there.

Sir Ghillean, who retires from Kew this summer, will become the McBryde professor from June 2000 - once he has finished helping to build a rainforest in a Cornish clay mine. Once on Kaua'i, he plans to spend a year researching the coco plum families, until recently thought to be relatives of the rose.

With the help of such big name researchers, Cox is confident he can transform the garden into the world's ethnobotany research capital - a scientific research garden with a conservation focus.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments