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Amazon rainforest: biodiversity and biopiracy

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 01 October 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:0510386
  1. Klaus Morales dos Santos, fifth year medical student1,
  2. Tulio Vinicius de Oliveira Campos, fifth year medical student1
  1. 1Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte/MG, Brazil

The Amazon rainforest is home to a flora with an enormous and vastly unexplored pharmacological potential. Klaus Morales and Tulio Vinicius investigate why biopiracy is becoming a threat to Brazilian biodiversity

It seems strange, when we have many advanced chemical compounds, to look for therapeutic resources in rainforests. But modern medicine relies on natural products, which make up more than half of all drugs in industrialised countries.1 There's still a lot to be explored in the 7 800 000 km- Amazon region, which is home to as many as 80 000 plant species. Brazilian flora comprise more than 20% of the known species worldwide, and the Portuguese described their use in the management of disease as early as 1500.2

Phytopharmaceuticals and phytotherapeutics

Basic concepts

Plant pharmacology has a specific terminology of its own. Phytopharmaceuticals is the name given to the active principles extracted from plants used by the drug industry in a technologically processed way, such as digoxin, escopolamine, or morphine. Phytotherapeutics include a range of plant based pharmaceutical agents which vary widely in quality and are made from modified plants that have therapeutic properties but were not previously purified. According to the World Health Organization, these products have been through some sort of pharmacological or toxicological modification. Thousands of plants are currently used for therapeutic purposes, but few have been transformed into phytotherapeutics, such as the spasmolytic and anti-inflammatory activity of Matricana chamomilla, and the laxative formulations from Cassia certa, Ginkgo biloba, Allium sativum (garlic), and Calendula officinalis (calendula).1

An increasingly popular option

Around the world, people are increasingly mixing elements of local and biomedical tradition. In developing countries, medicinal plants are used extensively by local care givers, mainly because of their low cost and the difficulties in seeing a doctor. In Brazil, 60% of all processed drugs are consumed by 23% of the population, …

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