Renowned ethnobotanist urges conservation

Story and photo by Mike Foley
(originally published in Kaleo, January 25, 2001)

Dr. Paul Cox

A world-renowned ethnobotanist — who has strong ties to Laie, other parts of Hawaii, and Samoa — is very concerned about losing indigenous plants and the knowledge of their use in treating human ailments.

Dr. Paul A. Cox — Distinguished Professor of Ethnobotany at BYU-Hawaii, Director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, with headquarters on Kaua’i, and a member of the Hawai’i Reserves, Inc. board of directors — told an audience of over 100 in the BYUH Ballroom on Jan. 9th that he hopes “to preserve plants that would otherwise go extinct. We’re losing rain forests at a very rapid rate, including the 250,000 species of plants they contain. That’s particularly true in the Hawaiian archipelago.”

In his lecture, Ethnobotany & The Search for New Drugs, Cox compared some of these “extraordinarily beautiful plants” to works of art. “Every time we lose one of these species, it’s like losing a Michelangelo, or a Renoir.

“We’re monitoring right now over 120 species of plants in Hawaii in which there are less than 20 left. As we lose plant species, we’re losing the potential to develop medicines,” he said, explaining that part of his work at the national tropical gardens is to collect seeds from endangered species, propagate them, and in some cases, reseed them in the wild. Cox added that “1,386 species of plants are currently maintained in our garden that would otherwise be extinct.”

“All cultures of indigenous people have used plants as medicine,” he continued. “What few people realize is that 25% of all prescription drugs are based on plants. 85% of the world’s population depends on plant medicine; and there’s a growing interest of herbal medicine in the United States,” with a value exceeding $15 billion, Cox said.

“Many of these drugs we use can be traced back to traditional healers,” he said, citing examples such as aspirin which comes from Spirea (“Native Americans derived the same molecule from the bark of willow trees”; digitalis, the major drug for treating defibrillation, from the foxfire plant in England; Pilocarpine, originally from an Amazon plant, now used to treat glaucoma; and quinine, which is used to treat malaria.

His list is long: “Reserpine was the very first medicine that could treat high blood pressure,” he said, noting that it comes from India; strophanthin, used during heart surgery, was discovered during Dr. Livingston’s travels in Africa after a botanist saw the natives kill large animals with poisoned arrows; and tubocurarine, a muscle relaxant used in anesthesia, comes from the Amazon.

“The point I’m trying to make here is that many of our most important drugs can be traced back to the witch doctor’s pouch,” which, Cox said, led him to wonder if there are other plants to be discovered. Since he had served an LDS mission in S?moa and spoke the language, his research drew him back to Polynesia.

“I began working on this seriously on Savai’i after my mother died of breast cancer in 1984,” Cox said, explaining he and his family lived in Falealupo for a year. “We observed the healers, and I apprenticed under them. We found something rather astonishing: 86% of the plant samples showed intense pharmacological properties. In other words, they looked like drugs.”

For example, he said, the bark of the gatai Samoa tree (also knows as the wiliwili in Hawai’i) can be used as an anti-inflammatory. He also recalled being effectively treated for a severe headache by rubbing his forehead with an ifiifi leaf. He later bio-assayed the leaf, but found nothing until he tested the oil. “Now forms of the drug are being used to treat intense arthritis. We found the first one in Samoa, although it was never commercialized.”

“Unfortunately, I didn’t find anything to treat breast cancer, but I’m still looking,” Cox continued, praising the traditional practitioners such as Folole Matagi who lives in Laie and Epinesa Mauigoa, whose grandson Steve is a BYUH student. “She told me they had a plant called mamala that they used to treat fiva samasama [yellow fever].” After further testing, Cox said the plant was found to contain the anti-AIDS drug prostratin.

When asked to sign a patent application declaring that he had discovered the drug, Cox said he couldn’t. “I felt I was holding intellectual property that belonged to the Samoan people.” He said a guarantee was reached where half of the royalties would go back to the people of S?moa if the drug is successfully commercialized.

“The AIDS foundation is looking at it very seriously, and it’s also being studied for the treatment of hepatitis,” Cox said, adding that the people in Samoa were rather underwhelmed by the whole process, because they already knew the plant worked.

“It proves to my mind that these people are not witch doctors, and that we all need to have a little humility. As an ethnobotanist, I’m continually in awe at what works. Ethnobotany is a great field. It’s a way to bring human dignity back into the equation,” Cox said.

“Many of these drugs may never make it to market, but the knowledge is important. The Polynesian way of healing is so humane. The problem is that the k?puna are dying, and not leaving the knowledge behind.”

Following his prepared lecture, Cox took questions. Asked about concern over commercialization and exploitation, he replied that “so many times indigenous people have not been acknowledged. My real goal is to train indigenous people to do this work themselves.”

He added that BYU-Hawai’i, who is seeking a fulltime ethnobotany professor on faculty, could play an international role in the field.

Asked whether ethnobotany recognizes the spiritual component of healing, Cox said: “I find as a religious person, wherever I’ve worked, I’m better able to appreciate what people consider sacred. Samoan healers, for example, believe the single greatest source of sickness is hostility. Twenty years ago, people laughed at that, but not now.”

Another question focused on whether removing active ingredients diminished other co-factors in plant medicine. “I’ve been looking for single molecules,” Cox answered, “but many of the healers use multiple plants in their treatment.” He cited a colleague’s study of a 12-plant Chinese medicine for treating eczema: “If you pulled any one of them out, it didn’t work.”

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