It is easy to forget, in these days of CGI scans and nanotechnology in medicine, that until recently all our drugs came from naturally occurring products. What is the future for the ancient herbalist remedies?

 

How Medicines Are Made

medicine

Producing new medicines relies on the massive budgets of pharmaceutical giants to produce and test countless variations of potentially beneficial molecules for their efficacy in treating disease. The costs involved are jaw-dropping. Bear in mind that the majority of treatments do not make it through field trials and so never reach the market, or return a penny of that investment. Of course, the rewards are similarly enormous with a successful drug capable of returning billions of dollars to the bank account of its creator.

Sophisticated technology designed with the sole purpose of testing these molecules are a relatively recent phenomenon. Previously it took hundreds of researchers and thousands of petri dishes and test tubes to achieve a fraction of the information available today. Before that, this type of research was mostly performed on natural products – adventurous gatherers were dispatched to all corners of the planet, returning with the plants and fungi that were in turn examined for their healing properties. Some of them returned with peripheral information on their samples, where they had been used by locals as treatments since ancient times… giving the researchers an indication of the properties they should be looking for.  Even to this day only a fraction of the naturally occurring ingredients have been examined, it is one of the mainstay arguments of the groups trying to protect rainforests that we have no idea what we are allowing to die.

 

A Page From The Jungle Book

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Out of the beautiful Pooyamkutty forest in Kerala, India, comes a tribal shaman, Shanguru Vaidyan. He attended the Vanavismayam exhibition in Kochi, aimed at bringing rapidly disappearing craft and medicinal skills to the wider public. 64 year old Vaidyan arrived at Kochi with treatments for everything from pain relief to tumours. Having learned his trade from his father, a native herbal medicine practitioner, he came with no less than 150 undisclosed medicines – Of key interest to us of course was his remedy for hair loss. Unfortunately the article, carried in New Indian Express, did not offer any more detail on the efficacy of his treatment, nor even any detail on the product or how it is applied.  The story caught our eye because we believe the first big step towards a cure for hair loss is as likely to come from some as yet unidentified plant as it is from the labs of one of those pharmaceutical giants… that is not to say a natural product would not need synthesizing into a product and to go through all those exhaustive tests… just that we back nature to have already done it better than we are likely to manage ourselves anytime soon.

 

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By Ian Watson

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