Cutting edge

November 6, 1998

Herbal medicine research combines ancient knowledge of plants' power and 20th-century science to devise a range of hi-tech natural treatments for the future

One of the things that excites me about our approach to herbal medicine research is that it is completely different from the classic drug discovery process. Unlike the orthodox medicine approach, our group at Middlesex University does not try to purify the active ingredient in a plant or produce synthetic analogues, rather we use crude mixtures of compounds that are found in herbal medicines and work on the synergy effects that are found in such mixtures.

On a recent visit I made to a pharmaceutical company, a pharmacologist admitted that most plant extracts tested were more active than the purified compounds. He put this down to "false positives" in the crude extracts. But with the pharmaceutical industry so intent on developing drugs from pure, mainly synthetic compounds and the patent protection that secures these discoveries, I wondered was he, and the pharmaceutical industry in general, missing out on a whole new generation of natural medicines?

Our approach is to look at these "false positives" as the pharmaceutical industry does and develop new holistic ways of testing the activity of different groups of molecules and how they behave both in the laboratory and clinically.

What amazes me is that herbalists in the past have selected plants for use in various medicinal conditions with no knowledge of modern pharmacology, yet we are finding that the plants used for specific treatments are being validated by modern drug assays and clinical trials. An example is the herbal medicine Hypericum, used for the treatment of mild depression. Clinical trials have shown it is just as good as Prozac but with fewer side effects.

One wonders how many other herbal medicines are out there among the estimated 250,000 to 750,000 plant species on the planet. Given enough scientific research, combined with knowledge of folklore, many other plant species could be developed as "Western medicines", and therefore as competitors for orthodox drugs. If this proves possible, then in future we may see a range of "hi-tech" herbal medicines being produced. These, no doubt, will play an important part in greening science by providing sustainable sources of medicines with minimal pollution effects in their manufacture.

Realising that such ideas are not on the top agenda of most research councils, I have opted for industry to help us develop this approach. As long as I have the freedom to indulge my scientific curiosity and to do creative work, despite being principally industrially funded, I remain highly motivated. In the process I am learning a lot about the value of intellectual property, licensing agreements and the funding priorities of industry.

What is more, research on herbal medicines brings me into contact with an unusual array of people. In the next few weeks I am visiting herb farms in southern France, addressing pharmaceutical companies in Germany and visiting a Tibetan monk who has been practising herbal medicine for more than 70 years. We are going to survey the use of anti-viral plants from Tibet and screen them against the Aids virus. The project will prove fascinating, not only from a chemical point of view, but also culturally.

John Wilkinson is senior lecturer in phytochemistry and pharmacognosy, Middlesex University.

Further discussion of the scientific aspects of herbal medicines can be found at http://www.mdx.ac.uk/www/pharm/

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