In Amazon, a frustrated search for cancer cures

Mon Nov 16, 2009 8:54pm EST
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By Stuart Grudgings

SAO SEBASTIAO DE CUIEIRAS, Brazil (Reuters) - The task of harvesting the secrets of Brazil's vast Amazon rain forest that could help in the battle against cancer largely falls to Osmar Barbosa Ferreira and a big pair of clippers.

In jungle so dense it all but blocks out the sun, the lithe 46-year-old shimmies up a thin tree helped by a harness, a strap between his feet, and the expertise gained from a lifetime laboring in the forest.

A few well-placed snips later, branches cascade to a small band of researchers and a doctor who faithfully make a long monthly trip to the Cuieiras river in Amazonas state in the belief that the forest's staggeringly rich plant life can unlock new treatments for cancer.

They may be right.

About 70 percent of current cancer drugs are either natural products or derived from natural compounds, and the world's largest rain forest is a great cauldron of biodiversity that has already produced medicine for diseases such as malaria.

But finding the right material is no easy task in a forest that can have up to 400 species of trees and many more plants in a 2.5-acre (1-hectare) area, and in a country where suspicion of outside involvement in the Amazon runs strong.

"If we had very clear rules, we could attract scientists from all over the world," said the doctor, Drauzio Varella, with a mix of enthusiasm and frustration. "We could transform a big part of the Amazon into an enormous laboratory."

As it stands, though, foreigners are barred from helping oncologist Varella and the researchers from Sao Paulo's Paulista University, who are among a tiny handful of Brazilian groups licensed to study samples from the Amazon.   Continued...

<p>A Brazilian researcher holds the "Violaceae" plant in Sao Sebastiao de Cuieirs near the Cuieiras river in the Brazil's Amazon rain forest October 30, 2009. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes</p>