U Biologists Find New Source of Medicines in Rain Forests

U Biologists Find New Source of Medicines in Rain Forests

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Ed Yeates ReportingTwo University of Utah biologists have developed a new way to search for potential medicines locked inside the leaves of tropical rain forest plants. The unique project also sets up discovery labs in the countries themselves, providing a more practical approach to save the rain forests.

BYU ecologist Paul Cox now has a partner in the search for plants in rain forests that could lead to the development of new drugs for the treatment of disease. Biologists and husband and wife team Phyllis Coley and Tom Kursar at the University of Utah have developed a plan that for the first time calls for exploring not adult plants, but immature leaves on young plants still growing.

Dr. Phyllis Coley, Biology, U of U: "Young leaves are probably the best sources of these chemicals and no one has looked at the young leaves before."

The U of U research team says scientists have been looking at adult plants for a hundred years or so, never considering that the young leaves are really different.

Dr. Tom Kursar, Biology, U of U: "Young leaves will be a very good source of novel compounds - things that would be active only in the young leaves and not in the mature leaves."

Kursar and Coley's colleagues in Panama have already discovered compounds in one species that may hold a cure for a deadly disfiguring tropical disease similar to leprosy.

Dr. Phyllis Coley, Biology, U of U: "We've purified the compound. We've identified it, seen that it's active in the test tube, and right now we're testing it in mice."

Dr. Tom Kursar, Biology, U of U: "We also, in Panama, our colleagues, are doing screens for HIV and three cancer cell lines and we've had a number of promising things comes out of those screens as well."

In addition to searching for medicines, the exploratory labs have been set up on the doorstep of the rain forests themselves. These home base labs provide jobs, giving the people there a more practical reason to preserve their forests.

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