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Let me tell you a story about Dragon’s Blood

February 14, 2016

Living in the beautiful forested Blue Mountains as I do I am no stranger to bleeding trees and sticky resins. In fact our garden is full of the stuff and I’ve often sat picking at it while watching my children play on the trampoline or in the pool.  So when I first heard that an ingredient called Dragon’s Blood, the latex of the Croton Lechleri tree, was the bright new star of the cosmetic active world I honestly thought ‘yeh, been there, done that’ and thought nothing more of it.  That was until this week.

This week I had to teach a class on this brownish, difficult-to-solubilise plant extract and rather than just focus on the usual facts and figures I was interested in delving much deeper.  To find out the story of Dragon’s Blood and to find out if what they say about it is true!

So let’s have a look.

The decade of my birth, the 1970’s was an exciting time for plant research.  Ethnobotany, the study of the relationship between people and plants, was quite the thing and university students eager to find cures for cancer, baldness, ageing and everything in between were making their way out into the wilderness to live with and soak up ancient wisdom from far-flung tribesmen and women.  Steven King was one of these people and it was he that ‘discovered’ Dragon’s Blood when living and studying a tribe in Peru.  Suffering from what may well have been early onset trench-foot after tracking through the jungle in leather boots King was encouraged to dress them with the latex from the Croton Lechleri tree, a treatment that cleared up his problem while at the same time paving the way for his future career.

Fast forward to the end of the 1970’s and the global research landscape had changed.  Organic chemistry, the chemistry focusing on synthesising chemicals that are based on carbon was booming and sending scientists out into the jungle for months on end suddenly lost its appeal – too long-winded, expensive and risky plus it is important to mention that these incursions into the forest weren’t always welcome.   For the first time in history it looked possible that the next cure for cancer, baldness and everything else would come from a laboratory – be synthesised by a chemist!  No plants required.

At the same time it is important to mention that one mans ethnobiology was another mans bio-piracy or cultural appropriation.  Tribal elders around the globe were not always enamoured by the reality that their ancient knowledge, passed on freely from generation to generation was potentially going to end up as some companies Intellectual Property and patented drug.  Western Privilege knew no bounds (a situation that has changed little over my lifetime).

Scientists like King found themselves back on the university campuses, their ‘discoveries’ put on ice until the political landscape changed.  Well, that’s not entirely true, they kept researching plants and people but with finances all but dried up their ability to commercialise their research or take it further was dramatically curtailed during this, the age of organic chemistry.

Fast forward to the 1990’s and the rainforest is back on the agenda again!  This time it is against the backdrop of global outrage as the rate of forest clearing speeds up and the global conscious wakes up to the fact that we might be about to actually see the Joni Mitchell song play out (which, ironically enough was first released in 1970):

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. They pave paradise and put up a parking lot”. Big Yellow Taxi 

The race to save the forest was on.

What better way to get people to value what for the vast majority, they have never seen nor could ever fathom than to play up the idea that the forest was literally teaming with ingredients that could…. You’ve guessed it….. Cure cancer and baldness, reverse ageing and keep us slim.  Suddenly everybody was willing to do whatever they could to save the forests!

It was during this time that our good friend Steven King gets another look-in with his Dragon’s Blood when Shaman Pharmaceuticals came knocking.  Headed by Lisa Conte the company focused its efforts on the commercialisation of plant-based pharmaceuticals.  However, even though the timing was right for the idea, things didn’t work out and Dragon’s Blood was mothballed once again after Shaman Pharmaceuticals filed for receivership.  The company failed because its investors couldn’t wait out the time it was taking to get FDA approval for these new natural wonders.  Very frustrating.

What I will mention here is that at that time Shaman Pharmaceuticals had a policy of re-investing 15-20% of its income back into the local communities that it was investigating.  This resulted in several on-the-ground improvements for locals including mosquito nets, hospitals and clean water.  However, not everyone in the affected communities was happy and according to the Environmental Justice Atlas Shaman Shaman Pharmaceutical representatives would survey villages around the area until they got to one they could work with while effectively ignoring the concerns of the others.  The key objection by indigenous local groups was that the knowledge that was in line to be commercialised was already in the public domain and so was un-patentable.  This is a common thread with ethnobotany and one that rarely goes in the favour of the indigenous people.

Fast forward to the 1990’s and beyond.

The planets finally started to align later in the 1990’s when Lisa dusted herself and started Napo Pharmaceuticals, a company that in 2012 finally achieved FDA (USA) status for one of their Dragon’s Blood based actives.  Our mouldy-footed biologist friend King didn’t miss out either, he joined Napo Pharmaceuticals in 2002 and remains part of their senior management team.  After all that the first approved active based on Dragon’s Blood, Crofelemer was not a drug to cure cancer or baldness, stop ageing or keep us slim,  instead it was the first anti-diarrheal drug for HIV/ AIDS patients which I’m sure is life-changing for people who need it but isn’t quite what most cosmetic brands want to hinge their marketing on.

So, what’s great about it for cosmetics?

OK so as interesting as all this is it doesn’t help me as a cosmetic chemist but this is not all of the story.   While there isn’t that much information available in the public domain to back up cosmetic claims with this extract, tribal wisdom and a growing body of anecdotal evidence is all pointing to this to being a very, very valuable ingredient.  Most trials on this ingredient have focused on either understanding its constituent chemistry or on testing the active on cell culture or, in some cases on animals (namely rats and hairless mice).  Interestingly enough studies looking at the  ingredients ‘actives’ vs the whole have generally found the whole extract to be far better at giving a positive outcome than the sum of all its parts.  I find this interesting because remember we lost the whole of the 80’s and much of the early 90’s thinking that man-made organic chemistry would save us when nature had the best answers all along.

In terms of cosmetic use I’m starting to see evidence of Croton Lechleri being a great source of natural antioxidants and antimicrobial agents.  Further, it is looking very promising in the wound healing realm, especially with regards to collagen regeneration and barrier protection.  Some of the studies I’ve read look at the ingested active while others are seeing results when it is used topically.  Typical concentrations for topical studies seem to be in the range of 0.1-1% active and importantly there seems to be no reason to suspect the active is mutagenic or a carcinogen so it looks quite safe.

A note before I go.

This little delve into the back-story of Dragon’s Blood plus me reflecting on my initial reaction to this active has reminded me of how easy it is to take these things for granted. To see a new ingredient as just another marketing opportunity, chance to grab some more dollars, to push something different.   It has re-focused my attention towards the true value of this ingredient, it’s history, politics – including conflicts, origins and healing potential.  One of the main reasons I started this work, this blog was to help share the back story of cosmetic ingredients with you, my readers in the hope that you too might value the science and chemistry like I do.  Now I realise that I too had slipped into a ‘commercial’ headspace and missed things along the way.  That will not happen again, I can promise you that.

There is still so much to share with you about this powerful and precious Dragon’s Blood but I’ll leave that for another day.

But before I do that I will just tell you this.  As you know by now, not everything you read on the internet is true – I might have even made errors in recounting the stories of others here (although I’ve tried not to) – one key voice to the masses on the subject of Dragon’s Blood is the Medicine Hunter, a chap that appears on the Dr Oz show in America.  Well, his blog post on Dragon’s Blood is little misleading as he talks as if Dragon’s Blood is tapped from a living tree in the same way as rubber is tapped.  This isn’t true,  The latex of the Dragon’s Blood tree is very different – a difference that was identified by Paula Rudall PhD of London’s Kew Gardens.  In reality to access the latex the tree has to be sacrificed as tapping the tree literally bleeds it dry.  It would be nice if this basic detail could be correct on a site that has access to the many thousands of people who Dr Oz pulls in don’t you think?  It isn’t as if the detail is hidden.  And if you are now wondering if this means that the tree is going to become extinct because of all this harvesting and stuff well from what I can gather it shouldn’t although I do have a bit of a red-flag around this.  Apparently the tree is very common across South America unlike its name-sake ‘Dragon’s Blood Tree’ found in the Yemen – this is a much more beautiful tree and one which often is mistaken in google searches for the Croton Lechleri.  The tree is also fast-growing and is being harvested for commercial use in the same way that pines and other ‘commodity’ trees are managed.  My red flag moment around this is just that for such a common tree you would have thought there would be more pictures of it online but I could hardly find any.  I don’t know if that is because it is too boring to photograph – it isn’t the prettiest tree – or if there is a bit of an attempt to mislead going on here.  I hope it’s the former.

Anyway, it’s all very fascinating and as it stands I, for one will be valuing this material a little more than I previously have done.

Amanda x








2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2016 4:58 pm

    Wow. This is fascinating. Thank you! I felt all ‘Game of Thrones’ like reading this!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      February 15, 2016 5:24 pm

      It does feel a bit like that doesn’t it? It’s amazing how much more real and valuable a thing becomes when you know more about its origins.

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