Rainforest plants have long been recognized for their potential to provide healing compounds. Indigenous peoples of the rainforest have used medicinal plants for treating a wide variety of health conditions while western pharmacologists have derived a number of drugs from such plants.
However, as forests around the world continue to fall -- the Amazon alone has lost more than 200,000 miles of forest since the 1970s -- there is a real risk that pharmaceutically-useful plants will disappear before they are examined for their chemical properties. Increasingly, it is becoming a race against time to collect and screen plants before their native habitats are destroyed. One near miss occurred recently with a compound that has shown significant anti-HIV effects, Calanolide A.
Calanolide A is derived from Calophyllum lanigerum var austrocoriaceum, an exceedingly rare member of the Guttiferae or mangosteen family. Samples of Calophyllum lanigerum var austrocoriaceum were first collected in 1987 on an National Cancer Institute (NCI)-sponsored expedition in Sarawak, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Once scientists determined that Calophyllum lanigerum var austrocoriaceum showed activity against HIV, researchers returned to the original kerangas forest near Lundu (Sarawak, Malaysia) to gather more plant matter for isolating the active compound. The tree was gone -- likely felled by locals for fuelwood or building material. The disappearance of the tree lead to mad search by botanists for further specimen. Good news finally came from the Singapore Botanic Garden which had several plants collected by the British over 100 years earlier. Sarawak banned the felling and export of Calophyllum shortly thereafter.