Visit for more recent material

New Medicines from Ancient Bottles: Shaman Pharmaceuticals

By Howard Rheingold

Thomas Carlson, M.D., director of ethnobiomedical field research for Shaman Pharmaceuticals, Inc., believes that jungle-dwelling societies might know botanical remedies for diseases that baffle modern science. This theory is the basis for a multimillion-dollar business effort to patent new medicines from ancient herbal remedies and return benefits to the indigenous people who provide knowledge of medicinal plants.

If Carlson and colleagues are right, their shareholders stand to make a fortune, many sick people stand to gain years of life, and the peoples and their habitats that contribute these botanical miracles receive assistance for their survival struggles.

If the idea of plant-derived medicines of the future seems farfetched, tell that to someone with Hodgkins' disease or childhood leukemia; one of today's most potent medicines for treating those diseases was derived from the rosy periwinkle, an old standby of witch doctors in Madagascar. Aspirin, quinine, birth control pills, pain killers, cancer chemotherapy agents are synthetic equivalents of old folk medicines. Because of the disdain held by the Western medical world for the "superstitions" of indigenous plant healers, and because US patent laws favor laboratory-created drugs over plant-derived medicines, Shaman is the first commercial US effort to work exclusively with higher plants for the development of pharmaceuticals.

For Tom Carlson, Shaman Pharmaceuticals has aspects of a crusade: "Our ability to survive as a species might depend on how well we integrate the wisdom of traditional forest cultures. It's not just that shamans know plant medicines. Shamanistic cultures have evolved harmonious systems of living with their biological environments. "

Carlson is both an ethnobotanist -- a specialist in the ways cultures use plants -- and an M.D. He has extensive experience in the jungles and forests of ten different tropical countries. He and Shaman's Dr. Steven King work with indigenous leaders, scientists and physicians in host countries, non-governmental organizations, and local governments. Shaman sends physician-botanist teams to live and work with shamans. By presenting cases to traditional healers, the Western indigenous healers discuss diseases with their indigenous counterparts, who point out plant remedies to treat each ailment.

The medicinal plants collected this way are shipped to Shaman 's well-equipped laboratory in South San Francisco. Shaman chemists, pharmacologists, and botanists test active substances, and selected the best prospects for further screening. One compound for treating herpes and another for treating a childood respiratory disease are now in Phase II clinical trials. Both compounds, first discovered by native healers, are derived from a South American tree that Shaman and its indigenous partners are cultivating in the rain forest.

If these compounds prove to be winners, so will the people whose healers led to their discovery. As a form of immediate reciprocity, Shaman devotes 20% of its ethnobiological field research budget to financing local projects that are proposed by the native people themselves -- clean water systems, Western medicine for ailments not treated by local healers, legal expertise for land conservation battles. "When Shaman starts generating profits, a percentage will be distributed among the indigenous people," says Carlson. The independent non-governmental organization "Healing Forest Conservancy" will oversee distribution of these benefits.

The rainforests are burning. Ancient cultures are dying. And a priceless natural medicine cabinet is being lost. The Healing Forest Conservancy, a non-profit foundation dedicated to the conservation of bio-cultural diversity in tropical rainforests, can tell you how to help: phone or fax 202 333 3438. And pray that a cure for cancer hasn't died with the last shaman who knew about it, or the last plant that contained it.

Ethnobotanical Links

Return to the Tomorrow home page.
Return to Howard Rheingold's home page.

Copyright 1995, Howard Rheingold