By MICHELE LIAN
DR PAUL ALAN COX dreams of finding a cure for AIDS, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The 51-year-old ethnobotanist has, for the last 30 years, been living with the indigenous people of Polynesia, fighting to save the forests in which they live while scouring them for drugs to halt incurable human diseases.
Cox, who dedicates his time to studying plants and how they can benefit people, was hailed by Time magazine in 1997 as one of its “Heroes of Medicine” for his search for new medicines from plants. That same year, he was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his forest preservation efforts.
Cox’s passion for and devotion to his career began when he lost his mother to breast cancer in 1984.
Paul Alan Cox: 'Plants are maybe the best laboratories on Earth.'
A Mormon, he first went to Samoa in 1973 to serve a two-year missionary service after graduating from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, in the United States, where he majored in Botany.
Fascinated with and inspired by the Samoans’ intimate knowledge of the plants around them, he went on to pursue a doctorate in Biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he studied plant physiology and pollination.
Two months after his mother died, Cox received the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator Award, which provided him with the money to fund his research over the next five years.
That same year, he moved to Western Samoa with his wife and four children. They set up a home on the island of Savai’i, in the village of Falealupo.
Here, isolated from Western influences, Cox dedicated himself to studying the island’s plants and the healers who used them. His work earned him the title of “Nafanua” in honour of a Samoan warrior goddess who is said to have saved the village from oppression and protected its forests.
Cox is now the director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii and chairman of the Seacology Foundation, which he established to conserve the environments and cultures of islands worldwide.
He is also the author of three books: Plants, People and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany, which he co-authored with fellow ethnobotanist Michael Balick; Nafanua: Saving the Samoan Rain Forest; and Islands, Plants and Polynesians: An Introduction to Polynesian Ethnobotany, which he co-authored with another colleague, Sandra Anne Banack.
In Kuala Lumpur recently, Cox was eager to talk about another, albeit less prominent, aspect of his work – the therapeutic effect that plants can have on the skin and hair, and more importantly, how the commercial use of plants from the jungles of Polynesia have benefited the indigenous people there.
“I’ve been very interested in finding ways to help the indigenous people, and I’m pleased that some of the things that we’ve done have led to royalty agreements with them.”
Giving an example, he said: “There’s a new agreement between the Samoan Government and the University of California in Berkeley for the discovery of the gene that produces an anti-AIDS drug called Prostratin. In this agreement, the people of Samoa will get 50% of all sales of the drug.”
The drug, extracted from the bark of the mamala tree or Homolanthus nutans, has been shown to force the AIDS virus out of the body’s immune cells, exposing them to anti-AIDS drugs that are already being used.
Because the Prostratin has to be harvested from the tree, work is already underway to clone the gene that encodes the drug and manufacture it using bacteria.
This source of income, he said, will help to discourage Samoans from sacrificing their already dwindling forests for farming, logging and road building activities in exchange for money.
Which brings Cox to his enterprising efforts to promote skincare products with Samoan-sourced plant ingredients.
“I noticed one day that the healers I was working with had beautiful skin and hair. And even though they are ladies between 70 and 80 years old, they had very young-looking skin.
“So I asked them how they took care of themselves and they showed me some of the plants they used.”
Cox has, for the past 10 years, been a consultant with Nu-Skin International, an American skincare company based in Utah.
A paper he had written on his idea of making personal care products based on indigenous knowledge had just been published when several major cosmetics companies approached him about making the idea a reality.
“When I asked them how much money they were willing to give to these people, they said, ‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ That’s when I met Nu Skin, which was a lot smaller then.”
Together, Cox and Nu Skin created a skincare line called Epoch, a small collection of face and body cleansers, masks, moisturisers and treatment products.
In exchange for his expertise, Nu Skin agreed to set up its Force For Good Foundation, to which US$1 (RM3.80) is donated for every four Epoch products sold, to support indigenous communities worldwide.
So far, US$10mil (RM38mil) has been collected and is being used to support projects in Thailand, Africa, Europe, Central and South America, Asia, South-East Asia and Australia.
To emphasise the potency of the Epoch products, Cox turned his attention to the Ava Puhi Moni Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, which is infused with Zingiber zerumbet, a rainforest ginger, the cone-shaped bulb of which is filled with a milky, creamy substance that indigenous tribes use as a shampoo.
“They take the bulbs of the plant and they squeeze it and rub in into their hair under a waterfall. Then, they rinse and squeeze a little more of it to use as a conditioner. And we’ve called it just the way they do, which is ava puhi.
“Frankly, it’s better if people could just use the plants instead of using this product, but most people don’t have access to them.
“We don’t collect the plants from the rainforest because Nu Skin has built some plantations to grow them in Hawaii.
“Epoch refers in English to a long historical period. All these products come from a really long period of people accumulating knowledge and passing it from generation to generation,” he explained.
Another of Cox’s favourites, the Firewalker Moisturizing Foot Cream – a fragrant, milky balm – is made with Cordyline terminalis, Hawaiian Ti (to soothe and cool the skin), and Babassu oil (to moisturise).
The leaves of the Hawaiian Ti plant, he said, has the ability to absorb heat.
“The healers rub the leaves on people’s foreheads when they have a fever, or their feet when they’re sore or burned because sometimes people walk across fire. That’s why we call it Firewalker.”
Their latest concoction is the Calming Touch Soothing Skin Cream, which Cox said contains Jewelweed, a plant that is usually found alongside poison ivy and poison oak, and was first discovered to have soothing and healing properties by the Native Americans.
“They put it on the skin to relieve red, scaly and itchy skin.”
For all his enthusiasm about the Epoch line, Cox maintained that he will continue to spend most of his time scouring for new medicines.
“Although this is very important to me, this is a very small percentage of my work.
“Plants are maybe the best laboratories on Earth. They produce rich mixtures of bioactive compounds. In fact, 25% of all prescription drugs come from them.”
Also, he is not about to abandon his search for a breast cancer treatment that could save the lives of millions of women worldwide.
“I still want to find a cure. I haven’t given up.”