Botanist's studies motivated by desire to help sick, afflicted

When Paul Alan Cox was called to serve in the Samoan Mission in 1973, he was thrilled.

As a botany major at BYU he knew his mission area included several rain forests. "I was in heaven," he reflected. He had no idea what it would lead to almost 20 years later.Brother Cox - a BYU botany and range science professor and elders quorum president in the Oak Hills 5th Ward, Provo Utah Oak Hills Stake - is working with the National Cancer Institute to test a chemical from a Samoan rain forest plant for possible development as a drug against the HIV virus.

From the plant, collected by Brother Cox during his research in the rain forest, the compound prostratin was isolated and shown to protect test tube cells against the AIDS-causing virus.

In initial tests, scientists dosed normal cells with the virus HIV-1, which killed healthy cells. Yet cells that had a dose of prostratin before receiving the virus suffered no damage. The research is detailed in the recent issue of Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.

Prostratin is now considered by the National Cancer Institute to be a drug candidate, but it is still not known if it is safe to test in humans, Brother Cox explained.

"We are doing research to discover if it's safe. We also don't know if it will work in human beings. What we do know is that prostratin in a human cell culture protects cells from death from the AIDS virus and stops it from reproducing."

Brother Cox also cautioned that it could be as long as 10 years before prostratin could be used as a drug.

"I'm very concerned that news of this discovery prematurely raises hopes of people suffering from AIDS. We don't even know if it is going to be safe to test in humans.

"AIDS patients are immuno-depressed," he continued. "We can't afford to give them anything that would increase their vulnerability to disease."

Even if prostratin isn't used as a drug, its discovery has taught scientists more about the AIDS virus, Brother Cox added.

"This has opened up a whole new class of chemical compounds for investigation and in a deep sense vindicates belief that knowledge of indigenous people such as the Samoan healers is not merely superstition but is based on a deep understanding of the world."

Brother Cox, 38, began his research in medicinal plants in 1985, a year after his mother died of cancer. "I felt very helpless and really reflected on my life at that time," he related. "I decided if there was some way possible, I wanted to contribute to helping the sick and afflicted.

"I wondered what I could do as a rain forest biologist to make some small contribution to human health. It occurred to me that if I studied the way Samoan people use plants in their medicine, I might perhaps find new drugs to help sick people."

At that time the study of plants in medicine was fairly unpopular research, even though 25 percent of the drugs come from plants or are modeled after naturally occurring compounds in plants, he added.

"Most of the scientific community believed that studying with traditional healers would be taking a giant step backward."

Brother Cox was able to start his research in 1985 after receiving the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award from Pres. Ronald Reagan. The award gave him funding to be used on any research topic he wished.

BYU gave him a professional development leave and he took his family and went to Samoa where he began documenting the traditional medicine of Samoa.

During his studies, he learned of a small tree in the rain forest used to treat yellow fever. He was interested because yellow fever is a viral disease.

When he first collected the plant, none of the pharmaceutical firms were interested in his work, but the National Cancer Institute heard about it and offered to collaborate with Brother Cox in the research.

Brother Cox has been asked why AIDS research would be done at BYU. "We know from biblical accounts of Jesus' ministry that a large portion of His effort was devoted to healing the sick and afflicted.

"I believe that not only is this research tolerated at BYU, but also is encouraged because healing human suffering is at the heart of the gospel."

As a young missionary, Brother Cox served most of his mission in remote villages. "I was just so overwhelmed with the love and generosity of the Samoan people. When I left my mission, I felt that I had a tremendous debt to the people and I wanted to help them and repay it somehow."

While serving in Fatuvalu on the island of Savaii, he was taken under the wing of Chief Aumalosi, a high chief in the village and a branch president in the Church.

"He came down every night and would sit and make me memorize what seemed to be random sequences of syllables," Brother Cox explained. "When I started to understand the language, I realized he had taught me the chief's language. Throughout my mission, it gave me a real opportunity to take the gospel directly to chiefs because they speak very formal language.

"It has also helped me in my work because I have been able, wherever I go, to speak the chief's language and to relate well to the chiefs."

Brother Cox has had a chance to serve the Samoan people in many ways, but perhaps one of the most noted experiences occurred in 1987 when he returned to Samoa to do research and found a logging company bulldozing the rain forest.

He saw people weeping. He knew that they cherished and protected their rain forest. He learned that the village needed to build a new primary school and didn't have the funds, so they granted a logging license to pay for the school.

Brother Cox offered to personally assume the mortgage of the school and logging was discontinued on the 30,000-acre rain forest. (See Church News, Aug. 19, 1989.)

He and his wife decided they might have to sell their house and car to raise the funds. But word got out, and some BYU students, friends and former Samoan missionaries Rex Maughan and Ken Murdock donated funds to save the rain forest, which has now been created as the Falealupo Rain Forest Preserve.

For their efforts, Brothers Cox, Maughan and Murdock were made Samoan high chiefs. Brother Cox was given the chief title Nafanua, said to be one of the highest titles on the island.

In Samoan mythology, Nafanua saved the islands from repressions and taught the people how to protect the forest.

Since beginning his work in Samoa, Brother Cox has returned to the country to do research yearly. Sometimes, he and his wife and their four children (from 8 to 15 years old) live with the Samoan people in a remote village with no electricity or running water.

"It's been a real broadening experience for the children. They've seen the Church function among a people who are very poor but who are absolute stalwarts in the faith," Brother Cox related.

"I have been able to hold Church callings in small branches and that has been tremendously pleasing to me. The faith of the people is so firm. They express great gratitude for being alive. These are people who don't have anything."

Samoa was recently battered by Hurricane Ofa and Hurricane Val, destroying nearly all of the homes and Church buildings on the western part of Savaii, Brother Cox explained. "Most of the people in west Savaii lost all of their belongings, and still do not have roofs or adequate water supplies. But never once have I heard the Samoans express bitterness. Instead they thank God for His goodness in protecting their lives.

"One of the things I enjoy the most about this work is going to Church on Sunday and meeting members of our Church. They are so humble and such wonderful people. I volunteer as a substitute home teacher while I'm in different areas and visit with the members."

Brother Cox's research has also taken him to other tropical countries throughout the South Pacific, Central and South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

"These forests are disappearing so quickly. I believe we only have 10 or 15 years left to do these studies," he said.

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