National Biodiversity Institute, Costa Rico

Site Visit

  • Location: Costa Rica
  • Date: Spring 2009
  • Web site: INBio
  • Site visitors: Berkley Bedell and Ferdinando Pisani


Oenothera rosea

Photo by Sphl, ©2006 / CC BY-SA 3.0

Chupa sangre (Oenothera rosea) is traditionally used to relieve and soothe sore muscles and joints.

Former Congressman Berkley Bedell, founder and chairman of the Foundation for Alternative and Integrative Medicine (FAIM) and his staff, while in Costa Rica, made a house call to the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio). The purpose of the visit was to get to know firsthand the different activities of this prestigious research organization. The vision of this non-profit, non-governmental institution is to put the care of nature's biodiversity into a central axis of Costa Rican culture, educational process and competitive strength. INBio wants to be most prestigious institution in Latin America in this field and wants to constitute a scientific kernel that will guide the sustainable use of Costa Rica's natural capital.

FAIM is interested because INBio is heavily involved, and is a reference worldwide, for bioprospecting botanicals that might have medicinal properties. In fact, thanks to international donations, INBio has acquired sophisticated fractioning equipment that allows researchers to separate the multitude of molecules in a natural product into smaller sets of components. A plant extract that is composed of several hundred molecules can be fractioned in sets of a few molecules each. These sets are then shipped to research laboratories that can use them in their testing protocols. For example, Harvard University, which has a collaboration agreement with INBio, uses these sets in sophisticated assays that test for possible mechanisms of action. If a positive result is reached, then the set is further fractioned to understand which molecule had the efficacy. When the molecule is individuated, it is then studied, and characterized for synthesis. Such a molecule is a homerun for pharmaceutical industries which are the only entities that have the financial resources and will to develop it into a marketable drug.

INBio does a great number of fascinating things. One can review their programs and staff on the official INBio web site. One of the more interesting programs is a South-South collaborative project with the Republic of Benin and the Kingdom of Bhutan to bioprospect potential fungi. Another is to truly and wholeheartedly educate the public on the importance of preserving biodiversity.

Bioprospecting is an activity that is constantly being undertaken. Researchers, often traveling incognito, search the world collecting natural specimens that are brought back to be tested in their sophisticated laboratories. Some of this activity develops into true breakthroughs, like the anti-cancer chemotherapy drug paclitaxel (known as Taxol) derived from the bark of the pacific yew tree. Legal issues tied to biopiracy have sprung-up which have led to the development of institutions like INBio that help regiment a system of Intellectual Property Rights necessary for a fair distribution of economic benefits from such discoveries.

One of the useful ways to approach bioprospecting is to study the traditional use of plants by indigenous or ancient cultures. If a plant was traditionally used against fever, it typically has constituents having such properties. This is the case of the Chinchona bark that has given quinine. Another example is acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) that was originally obtained from the willow tree. FAIM was struck by the fact that Costa Rica has lost almost all of its indigenous knowledge. Currently, bioprospecting there are just shots in the dark, which consists in testing everything one finds.

However, the modern testing approach often does not reveal useful properties in widely used and accepted folk medicines. In fact, the screening of traditional medicinal plant formulas confounds researchers. For example, Dr. Mark Plotkin, the Harvard eminence who studied ethno botany under Prof. Richard Evans Schultes, remarked that a concoction of plants that was given to him by a traditional healer saved the life of a diabetic. He used this concoction in a desperate situation where villagers, assuming he was a medicine man, summoned him for help. He was compelled to do something and, to avoid losing face, he gave the dying patient the concoction. A few hours later the patient was back in the fields working. However, the high-tech screening of the plants revealed nothing.

How is this possible? First of all, and this is what traditional herbalists always say, plants are composed of many synergistic components that work together. They cannot work in isolation with the same efficacy. Plant formulas (as in Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine) have hundreds of molecules that work together. This is a travesty for hard-core investigators who are searching for the one active ingredient in a therapeutic plant or formula. Furthermore, these traditional formulas might have a cascade effect, in the sense that the therapeutic pathway is not simple and direct, but composed if many different consecutive steps. Other molecules in the compound mixture that have buffering effect can contrast toxic molecules. That is why the FDA rule that all plants in an herbal formula must individually be proven non-toxic, forfeits the approval of many ancient traditional formulas that have a proven track record.

Simple in vitro (in the lab) assays might completely elude a mechanism possible in vivo( in the body). That traditional formulas could be so sophisticated, like the ones handed out by barefoot medicine men wearing feathered headdresses, is unacceptable by most educated researchers. On the other hand, these same people are the first to remark that ancient works of engineering such as the Egyptian pyramids, the Inca stonework, or the Taj Mahal are so sophisticated that it could be an almost insurmountable challenge to replicate them today. What about intellectual treasures such as the Mayan calendar that synchronizes the periodicity of the planets with long haul movements of precession? Could such sophistication also have been in the arena of medicine? What is even more bizarre, as Dr. Wade Davis has remarked (another acolyte of Prof. Shultes) is the assertion that the epistemological models and principles are completely different from Western Science.

The fact that botanicals give medicine and the development of this medicine is useful to humanity is accepted by everyone. However, this can be taken at different levels.

  1. The development of completely or partly synthesized molecule into an effective drug that was originally discovered from a natural product. This is what modern pharmaceutical companies do.
  2. The development of standardized medicines made from natural products. This is a fast growing well-organized industry, which has developed many innovative and effective products. However, these legally fit in the category of supplements and are not drugs.
  3. The use of remedies made from natural products such as herbs and foods.

It is on this third level that FAIM places emphasis. Eighty five percent of the human population uses this kind of medicine as its first line of medical defense. Most of the world population does not have other options in terms of medical care, not to mention advanced medical care. Notwithstanding the importance, the World Health Organization has only a handful of people who look into a non-pharmaceutical solution to this problem. Using eucalyptus leaves for the lungs, garlic and bee propolis for infections and aloe vera for the skin are examples of effective remedies used by many. Ancient experience could be intensified by science. Such knowledge could help empower millions around the globe. The challenge is certainly monumental, but knowledge based innovations have truly given fundamental advancements; hygiene, clean water, proper nutrition giving the greatest benefits in health.

We would like to highlight one organization that is an example how working in this direction can help populations improve health by revitalizing the traditional knowledge of the use of medicinal plants. Anamed International organizes one-week seminars in villages in many developing countries that educate and train the use of locally available resources for medicine and food. Villagers can empower themselves without waiting for international organizations or pharmaceutical companies to give them solutions which usually imply vicious debt cycles. Through a well-constructed methodology aided by posters, booklets, the knowledge of village elders and traditional healers, Anamed has succeeded in creating a model that allows people to empower themselves and dramatically improve the health and survival of their communities.

Prof. Schultes was surely one of the greatest ethno botanist. As wonderfully retold in Wade Davis' One River, he traveled for many years in extreme conditions studying the traditional remedies of tribes that populate the Amazon jungle. In one of his last interviews, he regretted that none of his discoveries have ever brought the development of a major drug. However, to his students, he would tirelessly elucidate the beneficial properties of plants he discovered, many of which are still being used successfully by those populations for primary health care. Drug companies are interested in creating multibillion dollar businesses around products that are protected by patents. However, it is in the standardized unpatentable plant products that the parties interested in promoting health should be aspiring to. For they are easily and cheaply accessible, promote grassroots economic development and can give great benefit to millions of people around the world. For examples of companies that have created marketable medicinal products from the Amazon (for which Prof. Schultes would most certainly have rejoiced) are Raintree Nutrition by Leslie Taylor and the Amazon Herb Co. by John Easterling.