The process involves discarding compounds that seem to be irrelevant, then dividing those that work into smaller units, and running the tests again, narrowing the field down with each step. So far, the researchers have found three compounds that block the formation of the bacteria’s cell wall, causing it to die.
“We have three wonderful hits,” Lewis says.
But why would these plants of the Upper Amazon contain a compound that destroys tuberculosis cells when TB is not much of a problem in that isolated area?
Lewis has a hypothesis.
“These trees and plants are growing in a rain forest and are subjected to a huge amount of stress all the time,” he says. “They have to constantly protect themselves against being infected by microorganisms and eaten by insects. That’s morning, noon and night, 12 months out of the year.”
Lewis found his most important clue in the soils around the plants. The soils are rich with bacteria “that are extremely close, in the same bacterial family,” as the one that causes TB.
These microorganisms, he says, won’t cause TB in humans, but their presence forces the plants and trees to produce compounds that can fight off the bacteria.
So it may well be that plants in the Peruvian forest are producing compounds for their own protection that could, in the end, save millions of lives.
It will be years before we really know that, of course. There is much more research to be done, and then lengthy clinical trials will have to show that the compounds work, and are safe, before pharmaceutical drugs can be marketed.
“We just don’t know, at this stage, but it’s intriguing,” says Lewis.
If it all pans out, the younger natives of the Upper Amazon, who were drifting away from their tribal cures, will have one more reason to believe in the wisdom of their elders.
It is, after all, the old folks that the “strange people” like him have come so far to see, Lewis says. They are the ones who have passed on this knowledge from generation to generation. They have known what works, for hundreds of years.
Maybe they can help us again.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.