Amy Greeson seeks healing beyond bounds of pharmacy

Jamestown NewsBy: Ogi Overman, Editor – Jamestown News
Originally Published: June 17, 2009.

If Robert Frost took the road less traveled, Amy Greeson has taken the road, the path, the trail, the river, the stream, the tributary and, in many cases, the road where there was not even a road to take. Her life’s journey has taken her places where no one in Western civilization has gone before. She has taken the road not traveled, both literally and poetically.

And, as with Frost, “that has made all the difference.”

Greeson is a pioneer, but not a Daniel Boone; an explorer, but not a Columbus; an adventurer, but not a Sir Richard Branson. She is not on the vanguard of a movement – she is the movement. One day there will be others – perhaps many others – but as far as she knows, she and her intrepid crew are the first and only.

By profession, Amy Greeson is a pharmacist. She followed her dad’s footsteps to UNC, got her degree in pharmacy, joined the family pharmacy in Thomasville and began managing her dad’s business. For anyone else, that’s where the story would’ve ended. But, instead, the younger Greeson took her knowledge of traditional medicines, her love of the wilderness, and her innate desire to help others, and began a transformative journey that led to her forming an organization called Healing Seekers. The project is dedicated to the discovery of indigenous plants, organisms and esoteric therapies that could one day be synthesized into cures for any number of diseases. Given that most medicines have their origins as organic compounds found in nature, she is convinced that there is a wealth of undiscovered (at least by Western medicine) plants with curative properties in the subtropical rainforests of the world. And she has a wealth of information at her fingertips to back up her claim.

“Only one-half of one percent of the higher plant species on earth have been extensively studied for their medicinal value,” she told the Jamestown Rotary Club in a presentation last Tuesday that also included a video she and her crew made on a recent trek to Madagascar. “From less than 5 percent of our natural resources we have derived over 55 percent of our pharmaceuticals. And over 80 percent of antibiotics are found in nature. What’s more, over 70 percent of the compounds with anti-cancerous properties are tropical.”

Greeson recited example after example of drugs discovered in nature – a new diabetes drug formulated from the saliva of the gila monster, a fungus that suppresses the immune system and makes organ transplants possible, a plant mixture that led to the development of anesthesia drugs, an HIV-1 drug from the bark of a tree found in the Amazon rainforest.

But, regarding the HIV-1 drug, she also told a cautionary tale.

“Ethnobiologists from Harvard discovered that a particular tree bark seemed to knock out the AIDS virus,” she said, “but when they went down to the rainforest to get more bark, they found that the trees had all been cut down by loggers making way for development. That’s a truly scary prospect, that we’re losing so much land that is so biodiverse in potential remedies. That’s why Healing Seekers has as its dual goals not only educating people about these indigenous therapies and healing practices, but of preserving the rainforests and similar remote areas.”

While Healing Seekers is in essence a five-person documentary film crew that has made expeditions to Ecuador and Madagascar, with three more planned to New Guinea, the Congo and Borneo, Greeson herself had ventured to Peru and Belize to learn about the healing properties of plants from the native shamans, tribal elders and medicine men.

“For about seven years it seemed I was having to prove myself not only to the mainstream but also to the naturalists,” said Greeson, who is one of a handful of pharmacists in North Carolina who is also nationally certified in herbal medicine. “They thought I was selling out because I also believed in our Western medicine. I kept saying there’s a balance here of both worlds, and that’s going to make the difference,” adding, “Now those ideas don’t seem so far-fetched.”

Even though mainstream medicine has come around to at least recognizing the possibilities of natural remedies, the major pharmaceutical companies have been slow to respond. According to Greeson, “Big Pharma doesn’t want to listen until you’ve got something tangible. We’ve tried to make some contacts with them but they haven’t been too receptive. Our function is more educational, of raising awareness, but getting plants in a lab, while a separate entity, does go hand in hand with what we’re doing.”

Toward that end, Greeson revealed that two of the plants her team brought back from Madagascar have recently shown promise as potential anti-cancer drugs.

“They’ve only been in the lab a few months, but just last Thursday we got the news that two of them have had hits for anti-cancer activity,” she smiled. “They are being tested by Bent Creek Institute in Asheville, which collaborates with Wake Forest. We don’t know how strong the hits are; it could be nothing, it could be a huge breakthrough.”

Either way, Greeson said that her work cannot be dependant on producing results.

“It would be totally unethical for me to see possible cures and not try to do something about bringing them back,” she mused, “but I’ve learned that what we do can’t be attached to any outcome. The beauty of it is the journey itself.

“It’s going to be the next generation that will follow behind us that will see the results. The most powerful thing we can do is to bring awareness to all this. That’s when the walls will start tumbling down.

“It’s wonderful to have goals and to keep moving forward, but you have to allow yourself a lot of flexibility. What’s important is that we continue to educate. When your heart is into something that’s your passion there’s no other choice.”

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