Borneo's medical treasure trove at risk

Posted: 28 April 2006

Plants that could help treat or cure diseases such as cancer, AIDS and malaria have been found in the forests of the heart of Borneo, according to a new WWF report. But the rapid destruction of trees, much of it by illegal logging to meet growing world demand for timber, could wreck any chance of using these discoveries in the fight against disease, the WWF declared.

The report - Biodiscoveries, Borneo's Botanical Secret - reveals that scientists are currently testing samples collected in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, as well as in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. They hope to develop drugs that could contribute to the treatment of major, deadly human diseases.

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. "More forest destruction could well deny science the opportunity to discover and develop further potential sources of life-saving medication."

Scientists also found a unique chemical in latex produced by the Bintangor tree. The compound appears to be effective against the replication of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), as well as the tuberculosis bacterium, which affects many AIDS patients.

Kalimantan tree bark contains powerful anti-malarial.
Kalimantan tree bark contains powerful anti-malarial.
The bark of this tree is traditionally used by the Kenyah people of Kalimantan as an anti-malarial. © WWF-Canon/Alain Compost
In the bark of another species of tree, the researchers discovered a powerful and previously unknown anti-malarial agent traditionally used by the Kenyah people of Kalimantan to treat malaria. The substance - a triterpenoid - apparently kills the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum in laboratory tests.

In all, it said, 422 new plant species had been discovered in Borneo - shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei - in the last 25 years, and many others were believed to be there which could have medicinal applications.

Today, only half of Borneo's forest cover remains, down from 75 per cent in the mid 1980s. But the three Bornean governments - Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia - have recently launched the Heart of Borneo initiative, which aims to preserve approximately 220,000km2 of equatorial forests and numerous wildlife species.

For more details of the report, and to download the complete report, go here.