Medicine Man

We really can learn a lot from animals. Those who doubt it will be convinced by an encounter with Dr. Eloy Rodriguez, a Cornell professor breaking new ground in the field of biochemistry. He has a small office in the Biotechnology Building decorated with plants and small-scale replicas of primates that dot the walls and shelves. The space must feel quite confining to a man who is perhaps more at home in the tropical jungles of Africa Asia, and South America, observing animal behavior and working in bare-bones field laboratories.Rodriguez, the James Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies at Cornell, is loquacious, eager to share his intense interest in science with anyone who will listen, and especially underprivileged youth who have little chance of being exposed to the type of knowledge he can impart. He is a modern medicine man, searching the lush rainforests for natural cures for diseases that plague the world's people."People always try to figure out what I am," Rodriguez says with a smile. "We like to put labels on people. People say, 'Are you a biochemist? Are you a cell biologist? Are you an organic chemist?" He laughs, amused by the difficulty in trying to pin down what it is that he does. "Since I love to coin words, I call myself sort of a tropical biological chemist. Which means that I study biodiversity from plants, insects, fungi, and animals that utilize these things.And I primarily study [the animals] to understand the kinds of natural substances that they either use for defense or for whatever other important purposes, which then we can possibly utilize as potential medicines for humans, and for animals. I have research stations in all the tropical areas, because that is the way to the look at biodiversity."In making the connection between plants and animals, Rodriguez sets himself apart from other scientists more interested in the chemical composition of plant material and less inclined to see the relationship to the animal world. His observations of animals using their own "herbal remedies" has resulted in another term coined by Rodriguez and Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham -- zoopharmacognocy."This is looking at animals that utilize plant products for beneficial purposes, he explains. "You can talk about self-medication, but you could also talk about some plants being used by monkeys and apes to keep off ticks, as an insect repellent. There are a lot of ways that animals are benefiting from natural substances. It's not just self-medication."The field is called zoopharmacognosy, but it has many other components as well, he says. For example, some animals might use plant products to regulate their reproduction, some might use the products for social communication purposes, and others will use certain plants to deal with internal parasites such as worms."We think apes do this, we think that cats and dogs might do this, but that's more of an innate, instinctual behavior, whereas some of the other animals could be exhibiting a learned behavior passed on by the adults," Rodriguez says."This is an area we are exploring. The theoretical basis for self-medication. In other words, what are we really looking at? Are we looking at something that is already in the genes, and they automatically know what to use, or is it the way [humans] do it, where we still do a lot of exploration?" he says. "Apes and gorillas are quite capable of figuring out something may be bad for them instinctively; at the same time, when you are feeling bad and you eat it and you feel good, you can make the connection. It doesn't take too many brain cells to figure that out. So this is an exciting area."The moment of discovery for Rodriguez arrived when Wrangham observed chimpanzees showing obvious discomfort as they ate the bitter leaves of the Aspilia plant, of the sunflower family. Rodriguez was asked to an analyze the leaves and discovered that they contained a thiarubrine-A, a red oil that experiments showed was highly effective in fighting worms, fungi and some viruses that plague chimps and humans. It was an eye opening experience for Rodriguez."The initial study -- this animal is taking a distasteful leaf that it swallows -- this is really what started the whole field. I understand that this drug that we discovered [thiarubrine-A] is now being used as a very potent anti-fungal drug against yeast infections and for others who are immuno-suppressed," says Rodriguez. "Now we have some data that indicate that it's a potential anti-cancer drug. Primarily for so-called solid tumors-in the colon, in the breast.That revelation in turn led Rodriguez and some colleagues in Africa to apes that, when they had diarrhea, would focus only on one specific plant. They looked at the chemistry and demonstrated that the primary substance is quite effective in eliminating internal parasites. "We learned that the apes didn't take certain parts of the plant because they were too toxic, but other parts they were taking. So it's quite spectacular when you think about it -- this animal is actually differentiating within a plant what it should eat, and it probably is doing this just from taste. You have to realize that in this kind of research a lot of the interesting questions relate to the animal behavior, animal physiology."He has learned much about the secret life of plants from humans as well. The Hodi tribe in the Amazon rainforest, for example, makes extensive use of plants that scientists were not aware had medicinal value. When looking at food plants versus medicinal plants, Rodriguez says, humans use a much higher percentage of medicinal plants than the apes. But, he points out, "We know that the gorillas are primarily herbivores, they only eat plants. And they will sometimes travel for days to go get a particular plant; they won't eat anything else. We think there might be a food component here, but there's something else that they like, some medicinal quality --maybe an addictive quality."There are those in the scientific community who have their doubts, who question the cognitive connection between animals and medicinal plants. Could it be mere coincidence, or genetics, as Rodriguez has suggested? "There are always skeptics, especially in science. But anything new is met with controversy and skepticism, and I think that's great. That certainly doesn't bother me," he says.How does he answer the skeptics? "First of all, there's no question that when apes in the field are taking plants, and we observe them and we say 'Wow! This animal is eating stinging nettles.' Why would it take a stinging nettle? The plant causes incredible itching, inflammation. But these animals eat them like nothing. Well, we discovered that when you look at the chemistry of that, people use extracts for stimulating the immune system. We know that. The animal takes it, likes the taste, maybe the initial thing is they like the way this tastes. Whether this animal is taking it because it has parasites or because it's just hungry, we can't tell that but we can certainly say it's quite possible the animal likes it because he feels better.In the study with the chimps and Aspilia, he adds, scientists determined the primates had to be looking for some medicinal value because they swallow the leaves. "We've done nutritional analysis of the leaf -- it's almost like a paper coated with a chemical. So they are not going for protein. They're not going for water, even though most of their water comes from plants. If it's not something they are eating every day, then there is an indication that it has some special purpose as opposed to regular food plants.The chimps apparently have collected some 10 species of plants that they use the same way, Rodriguez says. And they don't use them as a group. At times a sick chimp will separate itself and just focus on a specific plant for a period of six days, he says, and then return to a more varied diet.While the natural world is filled with plants that have medicinal value, Rodriguez focuses on the sunflower family, primarily because three of the selected plants used by the apes belong to that family. In the tropics much of the plant life has to deal with being eaten by various animals and insects, he says, so there is more selection for chemicals that work better against enzymes. They evolve a greater series of defense systems.In the desert Rodriguez has worked with the creosote bush, which he discovered has thousands of natural products. "Now try to figure out from his cocktail what works -- it's almost impossible. That's why I find it quite humorous when you read in the latest research that people are talking about cabinetorial chemistry, where you take mixed compounds," he says. "For the treatment of AIDS they are using different protease inhibitors. I call it dirty chemistry. It basically says, 'We mixed this and it works. How it works, who cares?' Well, medicinal plants are in the same way. It's not generally a silver bullet, or a couple of golden bullets. It's this cocktail, and how you differentiate the synergistic effects -- that's the challenge before us. But that's how they work and that's one of the reasons why you read about an herbal used a thousand years ago is still used today. It has to do with the whole idea that it's very difficult to build resistance to a mixture of compounds. You always will find people are using herbals. They're never as effective as a silver bullet, no question about it, but if you can get 70 percent of that microbe down and keep it at a rate where it doesn't affect you ability to work, to function, that's really the bottom line on whether you feel good or not."Rodriguez says he's most concerned with finding the natural substances to fight infectious diseases. "Two million people die every year of TB, versus AIDS, where it is estimated that by the year 2000 maybe one million people will die from this. The biggest problem we have in combating infectious diseases is that if you're poor, undernourished -- which 50 percent of the world is -- then you are more susceptible to infectious diseases. Do you realize Uganda had a bubonic plague five years ago? It's unbelievable the mortality in Africa and Latin America. We have a very poor arsenal right now to combat viruses."He does much of his research in the field, in primitive laboratory facilities built in the jungle. Typically, Rodriguez will observe an animal using a plant and take an extraction. The substance is tested with some assays in the field, which is the preliminary screening. From there he performs more sophisticated assays against tumor cells, or viruses. "Then we try to figure out what the chemical looks like, how does it work. That's when pharmaceutical companies might come in and say, 'Let's make this and get extremely rich.'His research has also led to an interest in organic farming, with an emphasis on small, sustainable farm operations that include food plants and herbal medicines, much like the plots he has seen in the rainforest. "We ought to look at organic farmers because they are doing what I think small farmers should be doing -- a mixed medicinal/agricultural garden," says Rodriguez, "where the medicinals you can use yourself. But there are naturally evolved chemical systems within plants to ward off these ailments. I love that idea and I love the idea of avoidance of synthetic pesticides that are harmful. People have to understand that whenever you are spraying plants, whether you're trying to kill insects or fungi, it's just like somebody sprays you with an insecticide. So we should take this idea of incorporating medicinals with your food plants because not only do you have a medicinal crop, but you're also providing protection -- it's very important who your neighbor is in this world, our world and the plant world."Rodriguez, who knows all too well what it's like to grow up poor and underprivileged, has never forgotten his roots in south Texas, in a community of Mexican-Americans who have struggled for generations to improve their lot. His educational and professional success has meant greater opportunities for the people who don't have the means, or the motivation, to improve their minds."I grew up in a large family. I had 67 cousins and 64 of us got degrees, a lot of us got Ph.D.'s. Education was always important. That was the only thing that was a strong motivator for a better life." says Rodriguez. He speaks both Spanish and English, which has been a big plus in that he can communicate with all of the Americas."I never had aspirations to be a scientist, but I was always fascinated by natural history. I used to love to grow plants in my house. In high school, I never had any teachers who were Mexican-American; that was really incredible. Most of them were from Minnesota or somewhere else, and I could never figure this out. The idea of me going to Cornell -- I didn't even know about Cornell, even when I was in high school I had no idea about Ivy Leagues. We were the marginalized educational people. Where I grew up there were about half a million of us, and we had to go maybe 400 miles to get a Ph.D." Rodriguez made the journey, dismissing a high school guidance counselor's advice to attend trade school and earning an undergraduate degree and a doctorate at the University of Texas."So I find it ironic in many ways that I've met three kids who are from my hometown, who are undergraduates here. That's an incredible improvement," Rodriguez says. "They say, "Look, we're at Cornell and we're from Edinburg [Texas].' And I say, 'But look, I'm at Cornell and I'm a professor. It's this kind of thing -- this whole idea of mentorship and role models, it's very real."His struggle to get an education also produced a desire to help others make the transition from barrio, or ghetto, to the hallowed halls of academia. He realized that as a professor, as a research scientist with an international reputation, he could use his influence to establish programs that would motivate young children. "Not so much to be scientists, he explains. "I've always said my programs have been more concerned with critical thinking, critical writing. If you can't write then you can't read and critically analyze. You certainly aren't going to be a good scientist."I really felt that my whole [professional] promotion is based on my research productivity and the number of Ph.D. students that I produce; that's the name of the game at the university," he says. "I also realize there is a very important function that the university should have. That is reaching out to young kids -- especially poor young kids, because I realized they never had a chance." To offer those youths a chance, Rodriguez developed a program called Kids Investigating Discovery in Science (KIDS). The primary purpose is to instill critical thinking. "How do I get kids to think? How do I get them to read?" he says.KIDS started about six year ago in California, and has grown from about 40 children to some 300-400 spending parts of their, summers at the University of California, where he worked before coming to Cornell. "I'm trying to set up a program here at Cornell and go into the gut of New York City; into the worst public school that they have. Those are kids, I know, who are full of curiosity, they're smart."He puts lab coats on all of the participants. They get lessons in math, biology and hands-on thinking. "We know they are doing a lot better in school because their science grades have improved. The kids will tell you that science at the elementary school is so easy. We know that this works. I am a scientist, but at the same time I am channeling the excitement of research into a teaching method for elementary kids. They don't take classes, they are involved in the whole process of doing research, which is the best way to teach science. That's the way I do it with undergraduates. I take them to the Amazon, to Africa. It's the best way to have this respect for their abilities to think. Everybody con tributes in this type of setting.Rodriguez is equally excited about his latest educational effort at Cornell in which he and his undergraduate students will set up a communications system in the middle of the Amazon jungle. They can send images of flowers and insects to Cornell for immediate identification. "If a student discovers a new plant species, but we don't know what it is, we can send the image here and it comes back with the name of the family, the expert to contact, and send it to the field museum. It will be fantastic. That's important because at the same time we're doing some lab research and we discover this unidentified species kills viruses -- wow -- let's find out what it is, how rare it is. What took scientists decades to accumulate information, with this high-tech collaborative effort, the cataloging will be greatly increased, which is important as we see the forest being destroyed, we can keep up with cataloging diversity, and on top of that being able to catalog the biochemical diversity and then on top of that cataloging the medicinal value of that [plant or insect]."As for his discoveries, Rodriguez says every day in the tropics brings revelations. "The 'eureka' to me is constant in the Amazon because of the diversity. The interplay going on -- one day we saw a snake take a poisonous frog and was squeezing it. We were astonished because we thought nothing ate these frogs. But here is a snake that apparently has evolved a way to deal with that toxin. So we want to find out how the snake is doing that. We came across a group caterpillars. We found out they have a powerful neurotoxin -- a small polypeptide. This is fascinating because it leads to another idea. This kind of science is constantly full of new ideas and new openings. That's why the field to me is such a great joy."


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