Asia & Pacific

  • Medicinal plants face high risk of extinction in Asia

    Antonio Ligsay, Zypher Jude Regencia


Speed read

  • Natural products comprise more than a third of the approved drugs in the market

  • In 2008, Asia-Pacific recorded the world’s highest number of threatened species

  • An estimated 25,000 species of plants may disappear due to biodiversity loss

Biodiversity is the laboratory of the earth functioning as both limited and unlimited sources of essential requirements to sustain life. It pertains to diversity of life forms in terrestrial and marine environments.

Asia, which covers about 30 per cent of the earth’s land area, has some of the world’s most biologically diverse countries. The richness of biodiversity in Asia covers the use of plants associated with traditional knowledge by the mega-diverse countries from this continent: China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. [1]

About 7,000 species are cultivated for food and about 35 animal species have been domesticated for use in agriculture and food production. The vast diversified species on earth thriving on both land and sea are also a rich source of potential drug candidates.

About 80 per cent of the people in developing countries use plants to accommodate their primary health needs. To date, natural products account for more than one-third of the approved drugs in the market, making up 39 per cent of the total drugs approved between 1983 and 1994 in 33 different disease areas. [2]

Since the discovery of morphine from opium (Papaver somniferum L.) in China, many drugs have been developed from plant sources. These include the anti-malaria drug artemisinin from the Chinese herb (Artemisia annua L.) and paclitaxel from Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia Nutt.), which is used as chemotherapeutic drug for breast and lung cancer treatment. [2]

Today, artemisinin and its derivatives possess the most rapid action of all current drugs against malaria while paclitaxel is on the WHO’s list of the most important medication needed in a basic health system. [3]

Marine natural products have also drawn attention with the discovery of almost 8,500 products. One example is the drug isolated from the venom of the cone snail called conotoxin, a group of neurotoxic peptides used for treatment of post-surgical and neuropathic pain. [4]

Challenges to biodiversity

This affluence of natural products poses challenges for scientists to explore the potential reservoir of drug candidates. Ironically, we are just starting to realise these potential benefits that Mother Nature has already been providing us since the start of civilisation.

According to the report of the UN University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) in Hokkaido University in 2010, global biodiversity is changing at an unprecedented rate and scale due to human activities.

In 2008, Asia and the Pacific recorded the world’s highest number of threatened species, with serious problems found in South-East Asia. This problem can be attributed to the geometric rise in human population and large human activities, which have led to deforestation and the drastic transformation of natural landscapes into urbanised areas. These populated places have subsequently given birth to a number of destructive factors such as pollution that in turn have caused global warming. [1]

Industrial and agricultural wastes have also brought catastrophic upheaval to the balance of species. One example is wastewater being dumped into waterways in which 12 per cent of animal species thrive and depend. [5]

All these pose a serious threat to sustainable development and the survival of species. Once these species are gone, regeneration may take about five to ten million years. These threats have likewise meant lost opportunities for drug discovery and drug development from natural products.

Where plant species are concerned, medicinal plants face a high risk of extinction in Asia and the Pacific. It is estimated that some 25,000 species of plants will cease to exist. [1]

Forest loss has been particularly dramatic in the Philippines. In Indonesia, from 1990 to 2000, logging accelerated with an annual deforestation rate of 1.7 per cent. Because of this, local extinction of species has become common.

Windows of opportunity

However, some countries has started interventions to impede environmental degradation.

The Philippines, through resource management such as the logging ban, large-scale logging is being reduced. Democratisation, decentralisation and a new protected areas system were also instituted through the National Integrated Protected Area System.

Indonesia has also made steps to protect ecological balance and biodiversity. Management of resources in the vast archipelago was implemented way back under the New Order Regime of then president Suharto. Decentralisation for the entire archipelago of Indonesia was carried out wherein two laws were executed in relation to administrative policies granting more political autonomy to provinces and the other one with financial aspects. [6]

International organisations have also been established for the preservation of biodiversity. In Asia, two networks continue to foster, protect and preserve biodiversity — the UNU-IAS and the ASEAN-Network for Drugs, Diagnostics, Vaccines and Traditional Medicine Innovation (NDI).

The UNU-IAS is a global think-tank whose mission is to advance knowledge and promote learning in policy making to meet the challenges of sustainable development. It launched the Global Land Project that promotes land change science for environmental sustainability. [7]

On the other hand, the ASEAN-NDI aims to ensure that health technology development and the capacity of ASEAN member states are appropriately maximised and managed according to regional health needs. One goal of this network is to develop integrated research programs for the production and use of traditional medicine and medicinal plants wherein protection of biodiversity is of concern. [8]

These small steps will become bigger once the general public, and not only scientists, take part in the conservation of biodiversity. There are lots of windows of opportunities from biodiversity, particularly with the discovery of new medicinal and biological agents. If biodiversity is ignored, these windows will be shut forever.

Antonio Ligsay is a chief science research specialist at the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development while Zypher Jude Regencia is a science research specialist in the same institution. They both handle some of the government’s projects on drug discovery and development for both terrestrial and marine components.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.