Medicinal plants and the pharmaceutical industry
Dr Peter Lapinskas (1993)
Presented at: Medicinal Plants and Their Conservation, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 16 October 1993.


The pharmaceutical industry is both large and highly successful. Since many of its products are derived or made from plants, it would seem reasonable that the industry should be a major force for plant conservation. This paper will examine whether in fact this is the case, and ways in which the contribution of the industry could be improved.

Pharmaceutical companies, like all companies, are driven by the need to make profits; without profits they cannot survive. This can be achieved through maximising revenue (e.g. by improved marketing of existing products or research to develop new products) or by reducing costs (e.g. through cheaper raw materials and improved efficiency).

There are two principal ways in which pharmaceutical companies use plants: as a source of inspiration for new products and as a raw material. Large screening programmes have been set up to identify potential new drugs from plant sources, and hundreds of thousands of compounds are examined annually. However, once a compound has been identified, the pressure to maximise efficiency (and hence reduce costs) dictates that the company will try, initially, to synthesise the chemical or produce it through fermentation technology. Only if this proves to be impossible, or prohibitively expensive will a plant source of raw material be considered, and wild collected plant material is the least favoured option. The commercial pressure to conserve plant resources is therefore not great, and available resources will tend to be directed towards finding alternative sources rather than conservation.

The contribution of the industry to conservation could be increased if a larger number of plant-based products were developed, and there are many candidates. However a very large investment is required to research and obtain a licence for a new product. If a competing company wishes to market a similar (generic) product, they only have to show that their product is the same as the original product to obtain a licence. They don't therefore incur significant research costs and can substantially undercut the price of the original. For this reason most companies will not develop a new compound unless they can obtain protection against generic products, normally through patents. Since most herbal and plant based remedies cannot be patented, they do not receive the research attention that they deserve. This issue has received some attention in recent years, and some protection is now available for unpatented products, but the effectiveness of this protection remains to be tested.

The interest of the pharmaceutical industry in plant derived products could therefore be strengthened by improving the degree of protection available for unpatented products. If the regulations included an obligation for the companies to support the conservation of plant resources, then the end result could be a widening of the range of pharmaceutical products available for the treatment of disease and, at the same time, an increase in the resources available for conservation.

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