rethink everything

Pharm-ecology

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Dr Maximilian Martin

Global Head of Philanthropy

Our planet is in the midst of the Holocene mass extinction, the sixth such event in its history. But, this time, it is us—humans—who are believed to be its primary cause1.

Although the ocean—, which constitutes 99% of Earth’s biosphere2—is a far more stable environment than land, we now know that the impact of human activity is being felt even beneath the waves. Less well known is the debilitating effect this could have on our potential to prevent, treat and cure everything from inconvenient ailments to the most ruinous maladies of our age.

Less well known is the debilitating effect human activity could have on our potential to prevent, treat and cure everything from inconvenient ailments to the most ruinous maladies of our age.

Life in our oceans faces threats on many fronts. Overfishing is rife—of the 600 marine fish stocks monitored by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 52% are fully exploited and 17% are overexploited3. Plastic is now a pandemic, with at least 5.25 trillion fragments weighing over 265,000 tons currently floating at sea4. The oceans themselves are getting warmer, with temperatures across all four major ocean basins showing robust upward trends for the last three decades5. With such a diverse range of problems to tackle, it’s hard to even conceive of ocean ecology as a homogenous issue.

So, to get a handle on the kinds of effects these challenges have on submarine life and beyond, it’ll help to zoom in on a single oceanic ecosystem. Take coral reefs, rich in biodiversity. Their close proximity to the surface makes them especially vulnerable to the environmental consequences of human activity. And their preservation has surprising—and significant—implications for promoting global health.

Take coral reefs, rich in biodiversity. Their close proximity to the surface makes them especially vulnerable to the environmental consequences of human activity.

Concerning corals

Suppose a reef’s herbivorous fish are overexploited. Without enough fish to eat it, the algae that grows on corals may eventually run wild. If it does, the reef undergoes a “phase-shift”, in which the slow-growing corals are entirely replaced by seaweed or fleshy algae6.

Certain fishing techniques are destructive in themselves. Bottom-trawling nets7, cyanide stunning8 and even dynamite explosions9 are all actually used to catch fish. And, unsurprisingly, all are enormously damaging to corals.

We recently published an article about microfibre pollution, which spoke about the dangers these particularly tiny pieces of plastic pose to marine life. Corals are no exception. A 2015 study found that corals are prone to confusing microfibres for prey. Once consumed, these microfibres are found wrapped in tissue inside the gut, which could damage the health of corals10.

Perhaps most destructive of all is bleaching. When coral polyps are stressed by being in water that is too warm for too long they expel the algae living inside their tissues, giving the coral a white appearance. Unfortunately, these algae also provide the coral with around 90% of its energy. If the temperature remains too high, then, the coral will starve. Global warming is causing unprecedented levels of coral reef bleaching, sometimes in global events. The 2015-16 bleaching event, for example, affected 75% of the world’s reefs and killed nearly 25% of the corals in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef11.

These are just some of the problems facing our coral reefs. Being some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, the natural cost of their destruction is clear. Less obvious is the debilitating impact the loss of our reefs would have on the future of medicine.

Less obvious is the debilitating impact the loss of our reefs would have on the future of medicine.

Marine medicine

There’s a common misconception that “medicine” represents the synthetic approach to curing ailments, while “alternative medicine” is the natural way to go. Apart from this not being what these terms technically refer to, it would be quite inaccurate if it were. For instance, of the cancer drugs that were approved by the US Food and Drug Administration between the 1940s and 2014, only 25% were entirely synthetic while 49% were completely natural or derived from natural products12.

For obvious reasons, most of the many naturally-sourced drugs in use today are sourced from land-dwelling species. And yet, over 80% of diverse plant and animal species live in the oceans13. To spell out the obvious implication—there’s a pharmaceutical goldmine beneath the waves just waiting to be tapped.

To spell out the obvious implication—there’s a pharmaceutical goldmine beneath the waves just waiting to be tapped.

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Not that we haven’t started. Coral reefs, the rainforests of the sea, have already proven themselves to be an incredibly valuable medicine cabinet. Take, for instance, Cryptotethya crypta, a large sponge found on reefs in the shallows of the Caribbean. In the 1960s, scientists studying the sponge discovered a chemical14 commonly known as vidarabine. In its natural state, vidarabine is today used as a drug for treating the herpes simplex, chickenpox and shingles15 viruses. With a little tinkering, scientists turned it into AZT16, a drug now used to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS17. Also discovered in this species were chemicals from which scientists synthesised Ara-C, the first anticancer agent derived from a marine animal ever developed for clinical use and which is now routinely used to treat leukaemia and lymphoma18. Impressive, for a sponge.

This pharmaceutical bounty was harvested from a single species in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. The pharmaceutical potential of coral reefs remains largely untapped. And if we fail to protect them, they will remain so forever.

With a little tinkering, scientists have synthesised the first anticancer agent derived from a marine animal. Coral reefs, the rainforests of the sea, have already proven themselves to be an incredibly valuable medicine cabinet.

Turning the tide

A study by the University of Washington estimated that, if climate change unfolds as projected, the “best-case scenario” is that global temperatures will rise by 2°C by 2100, with a 90% chance of a 2°C - 4.9°C increase. All things considered, the study found the most likely global temperature increase by the end of the century to be 3.2ºC19. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the high-likelihood scenario would result in sea levels rising by 74 cm20. Combined with higher sea temperatures, this is expected to have dramatic effects on ocean life.

Next to policy, the way forward for protecting our oceans is to invest in companies that embrace climate protection and resource efficiency. Exceeding issuance of $100 billion for the first time in 2017, the rapid growth of the green bond market has already shown that capital markets can play a powerful role in supporting efforts to mitigate global warming.

Next to policy, the way forward for protecting our oceans is to invest in companies that embrace climate protection and resource efficiency.

Economic and reputational incentives for industries that have traditionally been major ocean polluters is a logical next step. Specifically, such incentives ought to encourage moving from a ‘take, make, dispose’ manufacturing model to a regenerative system where resource input and waste, emissions and energy leakage are minimised. For instance, the problem of microfibre pollution in the fashion industry is now receiving more focus than ever. We also need to find a way forward for businesses whose operations have a direct impact on our oceans.

Specifically, economic and reputational incentives ought to encourage moving from a ‘take, make, dispose’ manufacturing model to a regenerative system where resource input and waste, emissions and energy leakage are minimised.

Toxic levels of emissions from drug manufacturing are themselves significant ocean pollutants21. With global health spending expected to increase from $9.2 trillion in 2014 to $24.3 trillion in 2040, pharmaceutical companies are set to come under growing focus22. And as industries across the board adopt 360-degree or “cradle-to-cradle” business models, those tapping into the pharmaceutical bounty of the ocean are especially likely to be scrutinised. There’s a compelling case for avoiding investing in pharma businesses who are failing to clean up their act and, ironically, polluting what could become a vital part of their value chain. Instead, directing capital towards sustainable marine pharmacologists will be crucial for protecting the medicine cabinets of our future.

Capital markets and the adoption of a “pharm-ecology” approach to investing have the potential to play a catalytic role in protecting our oceans. The cures for our greatest maladies may lie beneath the waves. Our chances of discovering any one of those cures reduces with every species we lose. The time to turn the tide is now.

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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