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Rethinking Herbal Medicine

A phylogenetic study of traditional plant remedies could aid drug development.

By | September 10, 2012

image: Rethinking Herbal Medicine The medicinal New Zealand flax (Phormium sp.). Phormium species are used traditionally by Maori people to treat a wide range of conditions, including skin, respiratory and gastro-intestinal problems.University of Warwick, United Kingdom, Andrew Clarke

Many scientists raise a skeptical eyebrow to traditional herbal treatments, but a new phylogenetic study suggests that such remedies may hold promise—for both medicine and drug development.

In the study, researchers from the University of Reading in the United Kingdom found that many medicinal plants used by nearly 100 cultures on different continents are related. Because these distant groups of people likely identified their plant therapies independently, such herbal treatments may be legit, the researchers argue, and the plants likely contain bioactive compounds that scientist could exploit for new drug therapies.

“People think there’s nothing new to be found,” said John Beutler, a leading chemist at the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research, who was not involved in the study. “But, that’s just not true. Wherever we look, we find new stuff.” But critics still doubt whether researchers will be able to sort effective traditional remedies from the bogus ones, and whether pharmaceutical endeavors will follow.

In previous studies that tried to use cultural comparisons to find useful remedies, scientists struggled to make meaningful taxonomic comparisons. “If [local] floras are different, obviously plants that are used in traditional medicine will be different,” said Royal Botanic Gardens Kew postdoc Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis, lead author of the study, which was published today (September 10) in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. But Haris and his colleagues’ phylogenetic comparisons allowed them to link seemingly unrelated plants.

A plant trader selling medicinal plants at the Mona Market, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
A plant trader selling medicinal plants at the Mona Market, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Credit: Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, Denmark, Gary Stafford

They constructed genus-level phylogenetic trees of plants from 3 disparate locations—New Zealand, Nepal, and the Cape of South Africa. Once they assembled their trees, they overlaid ethnobotanical data regarding the therapeutic uses of various plants by cultures from each of the three locations (one culture from New Zealand, three cultures from The Cape of South Africa, and more than 80 cultures from Nepal).

In the flora phylogenies for each of the three continents, medicinal plants clustered into “hot nodes,” meaning they were more related to each other than the other plants in the analysis. Further, categorizing medicinal plants by what condition they treated, the researchers found that medicinal plants clustered into condition-specific nodes, even when the analyses from all three locations were combined—again suggesting a high degree of relatedness for plants used to treat similar conditions and lending some validity to these herbal treatments.

Biomedical researchers have occasionally drawn from ethnobotany and traditional treatments when looking for new drugs, but the use of this strategy has waned in recent decades. Though more than 80 percent of plant species have not been tested for therapeutic potential, the last major drug discovered from plants was the cancer drug Taxol in 1967.

This lack of interest stems, in part, from skepticism about the legitimacy of traditional plant therapies. Many cultures use medicinal plants for multiple ailments, for example. If a plant is good for your stomach, people may start taking it for problems with their nearby liver, then their lungs, then their heart and head, and so on, said Daniel Moerman, a professor emeritus of the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a leading expert on ethnobotany and cross-cultural studies. This makes it difficult to determine what condition a medicinal plant may effectively treat.

Haris, who recently completed his PhD at the University of Reading, sidestepped the issue by accounting for all the documented conditions each plant treated. “We scored everything—all of the uses that are defined—and let the results speak for themselves.”

Pseudowintera colorata, a plant species used medicinally in New Zealand. Pseudowintera species are used traditionally by Maori people to treat skin conditions, respiratory problems, and to help heal wounds.
Pseudowintera colorata, a plant species used medicinally in New Zealand. Pseudowintera species are used traditionally by Maori people to treat skin conditions, respiratory problems, and to help heal wounds.
Credit: Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Lincoln, New Zealand, Steven Wagstaff

Another criticism facing the study is that cultures sometimes use symbolic visual cues to identify potentially disease-treating plants. For example, it may be common for traditional healers to treat menstrual symptoms with plants that have red flowers, explains evolutionary biologist and senior researcher on the study Julie Hawkins. Such appearance-based selection would suggest that relatedness of medicinal plants is due to looks, not bioactivity.

“But, we’re finding a lot of morphological variation amongst [related medicinal plants],” Hawkins said, which suggests that visual cues don't explain their relatedness.

The researchers also looked at plants being developed or already in use as drug therapies around the globe and found a significant number fell in the nodes with the traditional medicinal plants, further supporting the validity of the method in identifying plants useful for drug discovery. The team noted several plant genera related to traditional medicinal plants that have not been tested for bioactivity, which could serve as low-hanging fruit in the search for new therapies.

Both Beutler and Moerman expressed skepticism, however, that pharmaceutical companies would jump at the new approach to guiding their drug discovery, as the industry has largely shifted toward robotic, high-throughput screens of chemical libraries. But new approaches are always welcome, Beutler said. “The perception is that we’re doing the same old grind and find, and it’s just not the case.”

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Comments

Avatar of: Ichha Purak

Ichha Purak

Posts: 1457

September 11, 2012

Herbal medicines should be practicised with sincerity. Proper analysis of different concerned parameters should be made both before and after taking herbal drugs. The conclusions should not be based on mere assumptions

Avatar of: glenn398

glenn398

Posts: 15

September 11, 2012

Herbal medicines surly don't carry all the side effects that pharmaceuticals carry. When they list the side effects some of them sound like a chemical you would use to commit suicide.

Avatar of: Jawahar Swaminathan

Jawahar Swaminathan

Posts: 1457

September 11, 2012

I think those are just disclaimers to encompass all possible scenarios, however unlikely!

Avatar of: glenn398

glenn398

Posts: 15

September 11, 2012

Disqus those warning are there for a reason, either they happened or highly likely could happen. Remember when they said that is as likely to happen as two 747s crashing into each other? Well to the several hundred people who were on those flights those odds didin't matter.
Subject: [the-scientist] Re: Rethinking Herbal Medicine

Avatar of: fusiondesigner

fusiondesigner

Posts: 2

September 11, 2012

I have been saying for ages plant based supplements can help with a range of conditions. There are multiple compounds a lot of which probably haven't been identified.
http://www.healthyfoodsuppleme...

Avatar of: CRL

CRL

Posts: 1457

September 11, 2012

The study is biased in the sense that there will be no record of herbal medecines that were abandoned because they are useless or toxic. It would be useful to find out how many toxic remedies, such as plants of the Aristolochiaceae family that have dreadful medium and long term effects, are still in use.

Avatar of: Jawahar Swaminathan

Jawahar Swaminathan

Posts: 1457

September 11, 2012

I think one the major differences between a large-scale pharmaceutical screening approach and traditional herbal remedies is that surrounding active compounds. Pharmaceuticals and modern medicine appear to consider that a single purified chemical is the active ingredient. However, traditional herbal remedies would consider a combination of factors in the extract to be beneficial. Whether there is any truth in either of the approaches obviously remains to be seen.

Avatar of: inicholson

inicholson

Posts: 2

September 12, 2012

Sounds like natural selection for medicines - the ones that didn't work or which killed people have been abandoned and largely forgotten. Those that we're left with are the ones with the best chance of working. While some herbal remedies can be useful, while many others are useless or actively harmful. We should be grateful that those who purchase them are willing to both fund and participate in clinical trials to find the most effective and least harmful herbal remedies.

Avatar of: Gian Singh Aulakh

Gian Singh Aulakh

Posts: 1457

September 12, 2012

The approach of traditional medicine and and that adopted by pharmaceutical companies differ radically.While traditional medicine do not search for or are guided by the active constituents,the so to say modern medicine only searches for the active ingredients so that these can be synthesized in the lab and turned into a big business.The traditional medicine has an in built message of service first and profit latter on .That is why the traditional medicine still survives despite the onslaught of modern medicine.Traditional medicine belongs to masses and the modern medicine to Big Pharma only.

Avatar of: inicholson

inicholson

Posts: 2

September 12, 2012

"=
Herbal medicines surly don't carry all the side effects that pharmaceuticals carry "

Two possibilities:

1. The herbal remedy contains an active ingredient or cocktail of active ingredients which act as an effective treatment. You can use the herbal remedy (concentration of active ingredient(s) varies from batch to batch and contains lots of other (naturally occurring) chemicals too OR you can identify the active ingredients and purify them (or make the same molecules synthetically in a lab). The latter will have fewer side effects, be a known dose and is therefore safer. Herbals remedies which work have at least as many side effects as pharmaceuticals because they are pharmaceuticals.

2. The herbals remedy contains no active ingredients and basically doesn't work. there might still be a cocktail of other chemicals in there, but at the end of the day you're just eating a plant. As long as it's not a poisonous plant and you're not allergic then no harm done.

Conclusion: herbals remedies which are safe probably don't work. Herbal remedies which work are probably less safe then pharmaceuticals.

I don't understand how anyone can believe that because it's natural it must be safe. Lots of plants are highly poisonous, many of them have been used as herbal remedies. Many of them proved effective (Aspirin is present in several plants, it's best-known for being in willow or Salix - hence it's called salicylic acid, penicillin came from Penicillium mould), but have side-effects and can be dangerous.

Avatar of: glenn398

glenn398

Posts: 15

September 12, 2012

I have taken herbals for years with no side effect but my wife who is on pharmaceuticals can't say the same as she has had lots of reactions. I had to go several times for kidney stones and finally found (chanca Piedra) and haven't had a stone problem since. With using this product I do pass stones but have never had to go back to the hospital since to have them removed. Aside from that I am 72 and am not on any medications nor need any.
Subject: [the-scientist] Re: Rethinking Herbal Medicine

Avatar of: IkeRoberts

IkeRoberts

Posts: 9

September 13, 2012

In my musicopharmacology collaborations, we have been trying for years to isolate pure tones out of several of Beethoven's most moving works to find more efficient ways of delivering the same experience, and eliminate the need for all the hardware usually required to generate the impure tonal mixture. We have yet to find candidates for the active ingredient, however. Our effort now is in high-throughput testing of two- and three-tone combinations.

Avatar of: Ericka Ayube

Ericka Ayube

Posts: 1457

September 18, 2012

Why the fuck wouldn't herbal treatments work? They have been working for thousands of years before us. All of a sudden it isn't strong enough for all the super diseases that mutated over the years of pharmaceuticals. :(

Avatar of: Steven Holden

Steven Holden

Posts: 1457

September 18, 2012

"...many scientists raise a skeptical eyebrow..." because they are lackeys of a biopharma institution that banks on new, mechanically derived therapies that can be patented and exploited for the billions of dollars of profit it feeds back into the one percent. The one reason some of these skeptical scientists got into the biz in the first place. Plants can't be patented....yet....(though, Monsanto is working on it. :) )

Avatar of: sb708

sb708

Posts: 2

September 19, 2012

i think it is unfair to say that modern medicine's sole motive is to find an active ingredient for the pure motive of making money. Yes it is a shame that big pharmaceutical companies control the mass production of drugs, and are consequently driven by profits, but you must remember that the search for the active ingredients is to identify the purest and most effective means of treatment. Quite often these experiments may be carried out by independent laboratories or even students with no interest in the profit side, but rather the research and identification of a potentially life saving medicine. It is only later that they are taken up or discarded by the big pharmas looking to profit from the sale. For example - in a recent article on alternative medicine in the Scientist, the author identified LCD and psilocybin (from magic mushroom) as an effective treatment in pain management for terminal cancer patients. Unfortunately due to to the fact that only a handful of treatments are required it isn't attractive to the big pharmas. How can you say in this case that the research was purely driven by money lust? The research is there to find answers. it is the companies who are out to make the money but research cannot be carried out without funding. It's catch 22.

Avatar of: Chris Blackmore

Chris Blackmore

Posts: 1

September 24, 2012

Wow the lack of research many people have done on herbal medicine is a concern to me, I am currently studying a BHS in Naturopathy and my main reason for pursuing this career is because of the greedy, big pharma industry who is profiting off 'treating' illness rather than curing or better still preventing it!

Herbal remedies quite often have no side effects! This is not a lie, and it is not because the constituents of the plant/s are inactive. The most effective herbal preparations are generally those that are made up of several herbs as opposed to just one or two. This is because many constituents do have undesired effects however they can be counteracted using other herbal constituents found in other herbs.

I think isolating active compounds and purifying them into a pharmaceutical is criminal and unjust as they are merely exploiting a legal loophole in which they can make billions off a compound they normally couldn't profit from. The history of evidence is enormous for herbal preparations and many constituents are known to have undesired effects on their own.

I think a great example of this is marinol or synthetic thc which although has positive effects on the patients who use it, it also comes with negative effects. THC has both anxiety causing properties as well as psychotic properties and is more likely to make people feel paranoid, stressed out and more likely to bring about psychosis, this problem has become obvious over the decades as people have grown cannabis with much higher thc content on purpose FOR THE PURPOSE OF HIGHER PROFIT! Unfortunately the entire plant gets the bad rap for this and most people aren't aware of the drastic differences between species of the same genus. Cannabis in it's natural form contains a blend of thc, cbn and cbn among many other constituents but these being the most important. CBN and CBC are both cannabinoids that promote anti-anxiety, anti depressive and anti psychotic effects. Combined within the plant with THC a perfect, safe balance is created [until man toys with it] The only reason big pharma isolated thc and purified it into marinol or sativex was to create a patent on their creation to make enormous profits and to stop people from growing their own medicine!

Wake up people... the only benefit we can gain from isolation of these compounds is to better understand their function and therefore have more empirical evidence of herbal preparations that work. How can anyone support an industry that wants to take your own ability to medicate yourself by growing your own herbal plants just so they can control your health.

I have a friend who is just about to finish his medicine degree and is having second thoughts about becoming a GP now as he doesn't want to support this corrupt system, I jokingly said to him he can see patients, prescribe them the pharmaceutical poison that will make them sick in ways they had never had happen before and then he can refer them to me who will be able to heal them to the best of my ability.

Yes nature contains many poisons, just because something in natural does not mean it is safe but herbal medicine has a lot more empirical evidence available these days which only goes to prove what our ancestors have known for centuries.

I am open to the idea of isolating compounds to discover new medicines or prove old ones effective, but to then patent them and charge through the nose, while the plants become illegal to grow or possess is straight out criminal and absurd!

No plant should be made illegal, the whole notion of this is both ridiculous and absurd! Even opium poppies have their uses and are much safer to consume than morphine and especially heroin.

The most common negative effects people experience from herbal preparations are actually from contraindications of pharmaceutical agents. I am not saying there aren't some useful pharmaceuticals out there, but many of them are evil and create more problems. They are not the only solution to health problems and nor should they be!

We should be educating people rather than prohibiting the things
nature provided us with to help us heal and live happier, healthier
lives.

Avatar of: aderrah hasnul

aderrah hasnul

Posts: 2

October 8, 2012

The effectiveness between traditional herbal treatments and pharmaceutical treatments have been issues since years back. In my point of view, both treatments have their pros and cons as they both show different side effects. Whether the side effetcs are good or bad, we as the consumers , should play our role in choosing the best medication and not to make judgements and condemn either one of them. I totally disagree with the comments that traditional herbal treatments do not bring any good effects because to me, plants are the most essential source of making effective medicine as they come from nature. I really hope that the diseases that are yet to find their remedies, will eventually find them in the traditional herbal treatments. 

Avatar of: gowri shankar.k

gowri shankar.k

Posts: 1

October 8, 2012

it is somthing like the skeleton of the parts of the plants which is similar to the human organs for example brain has has lot of nodules so leaves which has many nodules or with the roots or the fruits with the oval shped will have good effect in specific disease. like beans are good for kidney like that...lots of research should be done not only on herbal but also other available plants..

Avatar of: jbergstrom

jbergstrom

Posts: 1

October 16, 2012

Thank you Ericka!  You said it all!

inicholson fails to understand that while herbals can be toxic, the plant informs the user of this fact by inducing vomiting before the poisons can work, a trick big pharma hasn't even thought of, let alone produced.

"Rethinking Herbal Medicine" is a misnomer.  If scientists are finally understanding the validity of herbal medicine, then they are at last t-h-i-n-k-i-n-g. Sadly, our fauna pharmacopoeia is being destroyed  faster than we are realizing its great potential.

Avatar of: Mel Frank

Mel Frank

Posts: 2

October 19, 2012

Chris: Marijuana does not produce CBN--with sufficient heat and oxygen, THC degrades to CBN, and the amount of CBN is almost entirely due to the amount of THC and the drying/storing procedure. CBN is typically a small fraction of 1%  by weight of marijuana produced by growers in Europe and USA/Canada as the marijuana is dried and cured in cool, sunless rooms. CBN concentrations were about 30% of original concentrations of THC (2 to 8%) in commercial marijuana from Mexico and Colombia in the 70s and 80s.

CBC is also a small fraction of 1% of weight in marijuana. Marijuana typically contains 12 to 20% THC by weight as presently sold in CA dispensaries and  when grown from commercial seeds (a huge industry), a remarkable amount of an active ingredient in an herbal  (and this incredible achievment in selective breeding was performed underground mostly by pot smoking hippies).

CBD (canabidiol) is the main cannabinoid found in hemp, but rearely exceeds 3% of dried herbal weight. It can reach 10% by weight in specially bred marijuana that also contains considerable THC. I work with a strain that typically conatains about 7% THC and 8% CBD. Why CBD? Because CBD is not particularly psychoactive, yet it has analgesic and anti-spasmodic properties, hence Sativex, which has 50:50 THC:CBD.

And "psychosis," really? Perhaps intense anxiety when a novice user ingests too much marijuana from today's dispensary-grade marijuana as he/she would be overwhelmed by the effects, but of course these would last a few hours at most.

Marijuana has the longest history of therapeutic use and a safety profile that exceeds anything you'll find in your medicine cabinet--zero deaths in recorded history.

The cannabinoids are remarkable, bioactive substances that can affect both the immune system and the nervous system. If our drug policies were at all coherent and based on science and the public good, cannabinoids would find numerous beneficial applications as cannabinoids have anti- bacterial, fungal, cancer properties among many others.

Avatar of: shivalikherbals

shivalikherbals

Posts: 1

January 30, 2013

Herbal medicine are the best way of curing sexuale or general health problems,today mostly people like natural products must be based on herbal resources.

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