Samoa's Rain Forest Savior - Looking for a Cure for Breast Cancer, Paul Cox Harnessed the Wisdom of Women in the Forest He Loved and Discovered a Promising Anti-HIV Compound Instead

By Haapoja, Margaret A. | The World and I, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Samoa's Rain Forest Savior - Looking for a Cure for Breast Cancer, Paul Cox Harnessed the Wisdom of Women in the Forest He Loved and Discovered a Promising Anti-HIV Compound Instead


Haapoja, Margaret A., The World and I


Light filters through the leafy canopy, and everywhere there is the cooing of fruit pigeons, the whisper of honeycreeper wings. Shadows and iridescence flicker on the mossy forest floor as if seen through a Gothic cathedral's rose window. Long, twisted cables of lianas and broad branches of banyan trees covered with silvery lily leaves and rare orchids shade the understory where giant tree ferns, heliconias, and seeded bananas compete for space. It is within the Falealupo rain forest on the remote Samoan island of Savaii, the largest island in Polynesia outside of Hawaii and New Zealand, that native healer Epenesa Mauigoa introduced Paul Cox to the mamala tree (Homolanthus nutans). For generations, she and other Samoan healers had used a water infusion of its bark to treat hepatitis and intestinal complaints.

Ultimately this discovery led to a promising anti-HIV compound called Prostratin, isolated by a team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 1989 and patented as an antiviral remedy. NCI requires that any firm wishing to develop the drug negotiate directly with the Samoan government for a fair and equitable return of benefits. On December 13, 2001, the AIDS Research Alliance of America (ARA), a nonprofit organization that helped speed to market eight of the current eleven anti-AIDS drugs, acquired the license from NCI and announced a landmark agreement to return 20 percent of any commercial revenues from this experimental but promising compound to the people of Samoa. "Signing this agreement for the Samoans has made me very, very happy," says Cox. "I gave my word to these people that I would protect their financial interests, so it was a great thing for me to go back to the village and say I kept my word. And I was so touched by their response. They want to return a portion of their share for conservation work in other villages."

A world-renowned ethnobotanist and executive director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai, Cox first traveled to Samoa in 1973 at the age of nineteen for two years as a Mormon missionary. After completing graduate school at Harvard in 1981, he received a five-year National Science Foundation Award that allowed him to pursue any course of study he wished. He packed up his wife and four children and returned to Savaii, the least developed of the ten volcanic islands in the Samoan archipelago, a location as remote as possible from Western influences. Here Cox began his research into the medicinal uses of native plants in hopes of finding a cure for breast cancer, the disease that took his mother's life. "I see ethnobotany--the study of the relationship between people and plants--as the key to the preservation of this vast collection of species as well as a pathway to halting many diseases," Cox says after nearly thirty years of research in the field.

Cox and Michael Balick, his colleague and coauthor of an internationally acclaimed book on ethnobotany, Plants, People, and Culture, share a similar philosophy. "Paul has caused us to think about the value of indigenous knowledge in today's world through his work on medicinal plants and natural products research, his work on the loss of traditional knowledge and loss of linguistic knowledge about traditional varieties of plants such as breadfruit," says Balick. "He has educated a generation of students in the joys, the challenges, the pitfalls, and the benefits of devoting yourself to the career of ethnobotany."

Descended from a long line of conservationists, Cox came by his interest in plants naturally. His great-grandfather was an early advocate of Arbor Day, and his grandfather created fish hatcheries and wildlife reserves in Utah. His father was a park superintendent and his mother a fisheries biologist. When other boys his age were playing baseball, Cox was building greenhouses and collecting unusual carnivorous plants. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in botany in 1976, a master's in ecology from the University of Wales in 1978, and a doctorate in biology from Harvard in 1981. …

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