John Wilkinson, who is working to meld modern science and herbal medicine, may have found a plant treatment for Aids. Ayala Ochert continues a series of profiles of young researchers
John Wilkinson first became interested in chemistry when he was nine years old. By the age of 12 he had built - and blown up - his own chemistry lab. But this did not deter him from his dream of studying science. Despite some "very bad schools", he finally got to Imperial College though, as he says, it nearly killed him.
That dogged determination stayed with him into adult life. When he discovered that no one in Britain was prepared to fund research into the chemistry of natural as opposed to synthetic products, he decided to go it alone. "I decided to turn my back on academia and pursue herbal medicine. And when I wasn't taken on by any university because of that, I literally found myself unemployed," Wilkinson says. In the years that followed, he carved out a reputation as an expert in herbal medicine, while living an idyllic life in a medieval cottage in Devon. But when Middlesex University invited him back into the academic fold as programme leader for their new BSc in herbal medicine, it was an offer he could not refuse.
That was three years ago. Since then Wilkinson has been making up for lost research time, investigating medicinal herbs and even generating commercial interest. And, not for the first time in his life, he has set up a new lab. But this, his phytochemistry research lab is no shed at the bottom of the garden. It is a state-of-the-art lab of the kind one would expect to find in any decent research department. "We need to develop herbal medicines using a combination of 20th-century science and traditional medical knowledge," Wilkinson explains. "The two together can be very powerful."
It is through this combined approach that Wilkinson has developed a potential medicine for treating Aids. He has identified a plant extract that not only kills HIV-infected cells but also protects cells from being infected in the first place, while at the same time having low toxicity to normal cells.
Right now, there may be a bottle on the shelves of any health food store whose contents could treat Aids, but its identity must remain secret until clinical trials confirm or dispute its efficacy. Wilkinson justifies this secrecy: "In the past, people have made outrageous claims, saying they have got something that works wonders. But the Aids community hears this sort of thing all the time and is sick of it," he says. "These people are critically ill, and I think it is irresponsible to go shouting about things that are not properly tested." But he also admits that funding for clinical trials could be jeopardised by premature disclosure of the plant's identity.
Although about half the drugs in the modern pharmacopoeia are inspired by plants, an important difference between herbal medicines and synthetic drugs is often overlooked. Although whole plant extracts used by herbalists often contain hundreds of different compounds, conventional drugs have only one active ingredient. Only recently has the medical industry begun to catch on to the advantages of using several drugs at once. The widely hailed treatment for Aids and HIV, the so-called combination therapy, is a "cocktail" of different drugs, each of which acts on the virus in a different way and makes it less likely it could become resistant to any one drug. "I would not be surprised if when we get stuck into the chemistry of these plant extracts (being tested against HIV) we will find we are looking at a natural cocktail," Wilkinson says.
Whole extracts are more potent than single isolated components because the individual elements influence one another. "Obviously, if you have something that is more active, you are going to need less of it, and maybe the side effects will also be reduced." In fact, herbal medicines often produce fewer side effects than their synthetic counterparts. One example is St John's wort, a plant mentioned in the 1596 edition of Gerard's Herbal for its use in the treatment of melancholy. Clinical trials have confirmed that it is indeed useful in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. "We are finding that the compounds present in the plant bind to the same receptor sites as known antidepressants (such as Prozac)," Wilkinson says.
But we should not be lulled into thinking of herbal medicines as gentle alternatives to the "real thing". Not only are some plants very poisonous, but others, such as the Chinese herbal remedy for eczema, are actually better than conventional treatments. Many GPs now want it to become easier to prescribe them alongside more conventional drugs, but Wilkinson hopes that they will take more from complementary medicine than just the herbs. He hopes that doctors will learn the benefits of holistic treatment.
And it is not just medicine but science, too, that could benefit from a more holistic approach, Wilkinson says. "Fritjof Capra has inspired many of us to look at science in a holistic way. What we must do is move from the philosophical approach to actually putting it into practice.
"If you take a reductionist approach to science, you miss the wider picture. It's like playing a musical chord. If you play the chord of C, you can hear all those notes in there: C, E, G and C. But if you play C on its own, you miss that beautiful complement. Imagine music without any chords."