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Expert reveals how our health depends on nature
May 3, 2011
Polar bears are the world’s largest land carnivores standing 11 feet tall and weighing in at 1,300 pounds. These creatures, which descended from brown bears about 200,000 years ago, are expected to become extinct by the end of this century.
“They are starving and having smaller numbers of cubs,” said Dr. Eric Chivian, founder and director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, during a presentation called “How Our Health Depends on Nature” held in the Bobby Hackett Theater at the CCRI Knight Campus in Warwick on April 21. View photos and watch video segments from the event.
Chivian explained to an audience of 700 people that more than 30 percent of the Artic ice sheet has melted since 1970 increasing the polar bear’s challenge to hunt seals, their primary food source. And while the plight of the polar bear is relatively well-known, “their medicinal value is almost never mentioned,” he said.
What is often overlooked, Chivian explained, is the opportunity for studying their behaviors, particularly during hibernation. During this time, polar bears are immobile, yet they suffer no loss of bone mass. Were humans to remain motionless for a five-month period, the average person would lose up to a third of their bone mass. By studying the polar bears’ patterns more carefully, scientists may be able to find better treatments for osteoporosis, Chivian said.
In addition, polar bears do not urinate during hibernation and do not become ill as a result. In the U.S., kidney failure is the cause of 87,000 deaths per year, producing $35 billion in health care costs. The implications of studying why polar bears are immune to kidney failure can save lives and expenses, Chivian said.
But polar bears are not the only creatures facing extinction that can provide insight to improved medicinal treatments. Using case studies from his award-winning book, “Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity,” which was published in June 2008 by Oxford Press and named best biology book for 2008 by the Library Journal, Chivian described unique features of other animals which can benefit our health.
For example, cone snails are predatory creatures that live in tropical coral reefs. They use a poison-coated harpoon to paralyze and kill their prey before hauling it into their stomachs. There are 700 species of cone snails with 140,000 types of poisons, but only 100 of these have been studied. By learning more about them, scientists can create painkillers 1,000 times more potent than morphine, Chivian said.
“The search for a medicine that is immune to tolerance has been the Holy Grail of medicine.”
Chivian highlighted species of frogs that offer potential to develop antibiotics, treatments for Lyme disease, medicines for ulcer prevention and even glue for sutures. The problem, he said, is that these creatures are suffering and are on the verge of extinction as a result of the effect humans have had on the environment. Once they die out, “these compounds, the identity of them and how they worked, that information is gone forever,” Chivian explained. “We will never know what they were.”
So what can we do to reverse the trend? Chivian encouraged the audience to not only talk about these issues, but also to reduce their energy use by recycling, driving fuel-efficient cars, walking more, turning off lights when not in use and purchasing sustainable food. “It’s better for you and better for the environment,” he said.
Chivian is the co-founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. During the past 19 years, he has worked to involve physicians in the U.S. and abroad in efforts to protect the environment, and to increase public understanding of the potential human health consequences of global environmental change.
In 2008, Chivian was named by Time magazine, along with the Rev. Richard Cizik, former vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, for their work in organizing scientists and Evangelicals to join together in efforts to protect the global environment.
Chivian has lectured widely in the U.S. and abroad, and has appeared on national television and radio and in the print media in numerous countries. He has authored more than 100 publications. He is the owner of Pairidaeza Farm, an heirloom fruit orchard, in central Massachusetts.
Sponsored by the CCRI Foundation and the CCRI Biology Department, the presentation concluded with a book signing session. Copies of “Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity” are available for purchase in the CCRI Bookstore.