Key to nature's medicine chest lies in the desert's heart

A PhD student at Strathclyde is studying Bedouin lore to develop new drugs. Olga Wojtas reports

February 12, 2009

The herbal tea in Nabila Hamed's laboratory in the University of Strathclyde does not come from Twinings or Whittard.

It is made from the dried plants she acquired during her fieldwork in Egypt, living in the desert with nomadic Bedouin communities.

Ms Hamed is in the first year of a PhD at the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences (SIPBS), researching Egyptian Bedouin women's knowledge of medicinal plants.

An Egyptian herself, she first made contact with the Bedouin as a student in South Valley University, Aswan, where she completed a bachelors and a masters in environmental science.

It took time to build up the Bedouins' trust, with many hours spent sitting and chatting with them. Their communities are segregated on gender lines, so Ms Hamed had to make initial contact with the men.

At first the women were shocked by young female researchers turning up unchaperoned, she said.

"But after a while they started to get used to us and accepted the situation. We are friendly now and have a good relationship."

Ms Hamed's masters research looked at how Bedouin communities classify and manage their resources. For example, plants shunned by their sheep and goats were not used because they were obviously toxic.

She became increasingly interested in how Bedouin women used plants to treat a variety of gynaecological disorders, from pre-menstrual syndrome and painful periods to a number of infections.

"They use them for themselves because they don't have access to doctors and consider it shameful to see a man." The medical wisdom is passed down from mother to daughter over the generations.

"I decided to study their knowledge and see if the plants have active compounds," she said.

Ms Hamed is comparing the use of plants in the Siwa Oasis, Sinai and Eastern Desert regions.

Conditions in the area are harsh: in summer, temperatures can soar to 60C (140F), and in winter they drop to below zero.

Bedouin communities typically live in segregated tents, made from frames of branches covered in woven cloth, goatskin or palm leaves.

They live on milk and meat from their livestock and bread, with their diets occasionally augmented by fruit and vegetables bought in city markets. Ms Hamed and her colleagues brought welcome additions of cheese, jam and preserved foods.

In the field, she had to cope with water rationing, a major difficulty in the heat. "In the beginning it was hard, but after that we got used to it. It's quite healthy; they are more healthy than us. The main problem is cold in winter and renal colic caused by kidney stones."

A test bed for traditional remedies

Ms Hamed chose to study for her doctorate at Strathclyde, sponsored by the Citadel Capital Scholarship Foundation, after discovering the work of Alexander Gray, a botanist and reader at the SIPBS who is now her supervisor.

Dr Gray's team studies herbal and traditional medicines from around the world, researching plants as sources of new drugs. Many medicines are natural products, Dr Gray pointed out, with plants having yielded compounds such as cocaine, digoxin, morphine and quinine.

But Strathclyde is one of only a handful of universities worldwide still evaluating natural products for their medicinal utility.

"Most institutions think that if you can synthesise compounds, they will be the best drug molecules to use," Dr Gray said. "But we're still finding new compounds and new applications for old things."

The institute builds on Strathclyde's proud record of drug discovery, which includes 37 current patents, eight launched products and 200 commercial contracts. Researchers at the university developed a new form of the colon cancer treatment leucovorin, which was made commercially available in 2005. Decades before that, they designed and synthesised atracurium - the muscle relaxant, which is used by anaesthetists in more than half of all general operations worldwide, was the first clinically successful drug to have been developed in a British university.

Synthesising compounds in the lab is one thing, but Ms Hamed's work is a race against time.

Climate change means that some of the plants used by the Bedouin are disappearing. Action is needed to ensure a balance between conserving the vegetation and allowing the Bedouin to harvest them for their own needs.

This is crucial not only for the Bedouins' welfare but also for the biodiversity of the desert regions they inhabit, which are home to more than 2,000 species of plant and 15,000 animal species.

Scarce resources

"Some of the plants appear after rain, but as it comes less and less often, they no longer appear. This is a great pity, because they are very valuable and offer very good treatments," she said.

The Bedouin pharmacopoeia includes Achillea fragrantissima, used as an eye lotion and to tackle stomach pain; Chiliadenus montanus, used to treat kidney diseases and as an antispasmodic; Cleome droserifolia, used for slimming, skin diseases and as a diuretic; Haloxylon salicornicum, which combats period and labour pains, and speeds up contractions during labour; and Acacia nilotica, which counteracts nausea.

Ms Hamed is examining the plants to determine how they work as anti-fungal and antibacterial treatments by isolating the compounds with medicinal properties.

"Most of them haven't been tested clinically, but from the women I can see that they are effective," Ms Hamed said. "And the tea doesn't taste too bad, either," Dr Gray added.

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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