There are all sorts of excellent reasons not to cut down the rainforests of Borneo. Biological diversity, erosion, local climate, sheer aesthetics. . .no one should have to scratch their head for very long. But this isn't one of them, at least not the way it's being sold:
"Plants thought to help treat or cure cancer, AIDS and malaria have been found in the rainforests of Borneo, a report from the Swiss-based global conservation group WWF said on Thursday. . . A promising anti-cancer substance has been found in a Borneo shrub by researchers for an Australian pharmaceutical firm, while a chemical found in latex produced by a tree appears to be effective against the replication of HIV, the report said.
In the bark of another species of tree, the researchers discovered a previously unknown substance which in laboratory tests appeared to kill the human malaria parasite, it added."
Going to the source of the story, one finds more details:
"According to the report, Cerylid Biosciences – an Australian pharmaceutical company – has identified a promising anti-cancer substance in a shrub found in Sarawak. A compound present in the plant Aglaia leptantha has been found to effectively kill 20 kinds of human cancer cells in laboratory tests, including those that cause brain and breast cancer, and melanoma.
“The fact that the compound is very effective against a number of tumour cells, presents a very good argument for preserving the plant's habitat in Borneo,” said Dr Murray Tait, Vice President of Drug Discovery at Cerylid Biosciences."
No, it doesn't. The reason I say this is that we have oh, so many compounds already that will kill off twenty different kinds of human cancer cells in the lab. I mean that - tens of thousands of the damn things. Killing cancer cells in a dish is not as hard as it sounds, unfortunately. Now, killing any of them off effectively in a mouse model, that's another story. We probably only have hundreds and hundreds of those around, maybe a few thousand. And getting these things to work in humans? Well, you already know how many of those we have. It's a rather stiff attrition rate, y'know. I note without comment that Cerylid itself doesn't seem to be doing all that well right now.
Keeping Borneo from being clear-cut is a proposition that can be sold on its real merits. It doesn't need this kind of whoop-whoop. All these arguments do, in the long run, is make the people advancing them look like fools or con artists (Rain forest medicine! Jungle cures! Real soon now!). And it makes people think that discovering cancer drugs is actually not all that hard - just look in the right plant, and there it is. We already have enough people who don't realize how long the road is between some neat result in a culture dish and a real drug, thanks very much.