What Bioprospecting Tells us About Traditional Medicine

What Bioprospecting Tells us About Traditional Medicine

In the effort to be clinical about nutritional research and supplement development, we often come up against the both tacit and explicit notion that there is science and there is traditional knowledge, and the two are very disparate. The truth is that there is great wisdom and utility in the thousands of years of human interaction with the environment. We are all in a sense participating in a grand experiment. The wise medicine woman's salve, or the shaman's concoction may seem laughable to the modern urbane westerner, but there is some real value in this knowledge, and the pharmaceutical companies know this.

The key point to bear in mind at the outset is indigenous peoples that live close to nature invariably recognize and understand the inter-dependence of everything in an environment. This means that their lives and their health depend upon their ability to see how these relationships are formed and how they of are of value. Despite what you do or do not read in the media, drug companies are paying plenty of attention to traditional medicines around the world.

So why are traditional herbal medicinal remedies of interest?

Simple. Drug companies have a tried and tested, and currently widely-employed methodology called bioprospecting, or as I often see it to be, bio-pilfering. Bioprospecting is not a new industry, despite the odd current notion that it is. One culture has been borrowing ideas from another for millennia, but what has changed today is the way we treat this knowledge as intellectual property to be owned, so it has become all about patents and big business. 

The fact is that some of what modern science seems to have given us is in fact a traditional application that has been recognized, researched and adopted by pharmaceutical companies. Whole divisions are devoted to actively investigating traditional indigenous recipes for treating ailments and health issues. According to currently accepted figures, a full 77% of all plant based pharmaceutical products contain significant direct contribution from indigenous knowledge  (Farnsworth et al., 1985). 

It is estimated that more than half all medical treatments globally derive from traditional medicine. I don't want to make this a political rant (because intellectual property of local peoples is rarely honored), but suffice it to say that the examples of pharmaceutical companies taking traditional ideas and patenting them to huge profit are numerous.

For reasons not germane to this post, modern medicine seems to have hit a reset button, and the only knowledge worth counting on is recent research and pharmacological development. Big pharma spends a fortune on PR to ensure society stays dependent on its chemistry. The truth is that there are herbal remedies and medicines that are as effective as equivalent drugs.

(And that's also a big part of why supplements are now getting assailed as the same pharma companies pay politicians to slowly erode away the public confidence in their value, seeking thereby to shore up their profits, but I digress.)

However, recent appearances of things like drug resistant bacteria, as well as the misuse of medications, has got pharmaceutical companies ramping up their bioprospecting efforts to find new solutions to these burgeoning health issues.

So what is bioprospecting telling us?

To fully appreciate the value of natural medicine and traditional herbal treatments and remedies, it helps to see how this knowledge has become the bedrock of modern drugs.

Maybe the earliest significant example of the application of traditional medicine was the development of the anti-malaria drug artemisinin from tree bark. Then, of course, we have the most well known, morphine from the opium poppy. There are many more examples: we get aspirin from white willow; we get cholesterol medications from oyster mushrooms and red yeast rice; we get hypertension drugs from artichokes; we get sedatives from datura, and the list goes on and on. Something like a quarter of all drugs come directly from a natural source.

Here's a few direct from the NIH:

"Randomized controlled trials support the use of ginger for treating nausea and vomiting, feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) for migraine prophylaxis, ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) for intermittent claudication and dementia ... St John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) for treating mild-to-moderate depression."

Nature has seen to it that there is a web of connections such that for every natural malady, toxin or bacterium, there is also an existing natural antidote or cure to be found -- often in the most unlikely of places (unlikely to humans who do not have the whole picture that is.) Finding these is the hard part, and that's why 1000s of years of natural experience cannot be underestimated.

Here's what I mean:

The Australian aboriginals use a plant called Dubosia for pain relief, amongst other things. During world war two, a shortage of sedatives led doctors to use the extracts from the plant as a substitute for unavailable imported drugs, after one local Brisbane doctor had already been using it as a successful substitute for atropine in opthalmic procedures. Subsequent testing bore out the effectiveness of the plant compounds, and it has since been synthesized and patented. Nowadays, companies employ teams to do exactly this.

To give a sense of just how remarkable some traditional systems can be, scientists in England were recently surprised when a remedy from Bald’s Leechbook, (a 10th century manuscript of recipes often considered the first known medical textbook,) which claimed to cure stye's and other eye infections, was actually amazingly effective. Researchers exactly recreated the formula that combined and fermented two varieties of allium (garlic and onion) with cow's bile and found that it not only cured the eye infection, but also effectively attacked the virulent and deadly superbug MRSA, which is resistant to many antibiotics. Considering the technique required to complete the concoction, it was clear that this was no accidental discovery by ancient healers. One professor at the researching university actually describes being "blown away" by the natural formula's efficacy, even outperforming modern antibiotics.

Now obviously not every natural remedy is necessarily this effective, but it drives home the point that there is beneficial knowledge in traditional methods that can be of great use to modern science as well as to our health. The key is to acknowledge the benefits for all without stealing from local peoples (and to know when to choose a natural form and when to choose a synthesized drug / extract.)

Case in point:

India has a very long tradition of herbal medicine that is deeply embedded in the culture. The use of turmeric is incredibly common, but a company actually tried to patent the compound, thereby complicating the usage. Another case that drew outrage occurred when a pharmaceutical company tried to patent an ancient remedy for diabetes made from eggplant, bitter gourd, and the fruit of the rose apple tree. Or the well-known case in 1995, when the USDA and a pharma company were given a patent on a compound derived from neem, another commonly used Indian traditional herbal medicine. It took five years to repeal the patent. Sometimes these corporations come in and steal the formulas without the locals even realizing. Believe or not, there are still ongoing attempts to patent the ECGC molecule in green tea. The patenting of nature is getting scary.

(As another aside, more than half the plant species in Brazil alone have been patented already!)

Anyway, my point with these examples it is show how remarkably effective traditional medicines can be. It's not all just pseudo-medicine, but potentially real and beneficial wisdom, and the efforts of pharmaceuticals to take advantage of them is clear evidence of their value.

The problem in my mind is the effort to synthesize every natural process. While it sometimes works, it also sometimes does not. For instance, a company that developed an immune-related drug from the agoryapacha plant, discovered that the compound was medicinally ineffective when extracted from the same plant grown in a different location. The medicinal qualities of the plant and the extracts were lost unless grown in original forest setting.

Sometimes the natural format is essential. 

Which brings me to our own role as a supplement manufacturer. As a type of natural health product, we take plants in their original form and try to work primarily with that. Think of vitamin C, which is much more useful to the body in its original fibrous shell than as an extracted isolate of ascorbic acid. Sometimes you need the natural form; sometimes you need a synthetic drug. But knowing the difference can be critical to good health.

Now I am all for bringing traditional medicine into the twenty first century with careful testing, preparation, standardization, etc, as we do, but extracting compounds to create synthetic drugs is not always the best approach (not to mention the issue about patents and ip.) If a natural form is available, and the research shows its effectiveness, then that should be our first choice. As we all well know from the ubiquitous drug ads, sometimes a synthetic approach can result in a whole slew of side-effects.

In my numerous debates with biochemists about the usefulness of supplements, (which I see as potentially akin to traditional apothecary or tribal healer recipes,) I always return to this touchstone. Nature already has the answers, and staying close to nature is a better idea than creating isolated, man-made reproductions of natural compounds. Now I'm still coming to terms with whether I would want to utilize something made from cow's bile, but I will say that if it is viable, I'd rather use a natural format than a synthetic format that we don't know how our body might respond to and might well cause other problems.

I'd love to know what you think, so drop a response below.

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The opinions expressed in this article are of the author. Content and other information presented on the site are not meant to be medical advice or any substitute for professional advice, counseling, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard professional medical or mental health advice from your physician or other qualified health provider.

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