Waiting for Cures


Good news for the new year. New Scientist reports that a deal struck in a London pub a few years is leading to new hope for 200 million people worldwide suffering from the fatal liver disease, hepatitis C. The researchers’ aim was to bypass big pharma’s patents on interferon treatments, since their $13,000-a-year drugs were affordable to only 1 in 6 sufferers. Best of all, the new interferon drug , which will be available to the poor, actually cures hep-C.

The British Medical Journal publishes a paper out of the Mayo Clinic on mining historical documents for clues to potential new drugs. The authors cite a 400-year old report by Georg Everhard Rumphius, an employee of the Dutch East Indies Company, who described the anti-diarrheal properties of extracts from the fruit kernels of atun trees. Turns out to be an antibiotic new to science, old news to the Ambon islanders of Indonesia.

Delayed gratification was nothing new to Rumphius, say the authors:

It is amazing that Rumphius’s work was ever published. In 1670 he went blind, and four years later his wife and daughter were killed in an earthquake. Thirteen years later, in 1687, a fire levelled the capital of Ambon’s European quarter, and his manuscripts and the botanical illustrations that he had drawn himself were burnt. Yet Rumphius took this opportunity to begin the herbal again; he dictated a new and revised text in Dutch to scribes, and he commissioned draftsmen to do the illustrations.

Finally, in 1692, the first half of the Ambonese Herbal was finished, and the governor general at the time ordered the manuscript and the illustrations to be copied. This order was fortunate, as the original herbal text was destroyed on the way to Holland when the transport ship was sunk by a hostile French naval squadron. Again, upon notification of the disaster Rumphius did not surrender to despair. Rather, he took the opportunity to augment and correct the first half of his text while he completed the six volumes of the second half. Rumphius added new material (to make volume seven) only a few months before his death at the age of 74.

Fact:

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  • Julia Whitty is the environmental correspondent for Mother Jones. Her latest book is Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. For more of her stories, click here.