Despite promising discoveries, few herbal remedies end up in useful drugs. Although there have been early successes such aspirin and codeine, new ones are rare.
It’s not for lack of trying. The pharmaceutical company Merck partnered with the Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute and spent millions of dollars and six years looking in the jungle for medicinal plants without finding a single significant success.
Even when a plant is found with pharmaceutical promise, years of research and millions more must be spent on trials.
Bernard Graz has another way, called reverse pharmacology. The Swiss professor is turning the process upside down. Instead of finding what works in the lab, he’s finding out what works in the field.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because we like to believe that traditional healers hold the keys to treating illnesses. You know, the kind of movie where our fearless adventurers sit cross-legged around a fire as a weathered but sage village healer passes on centuries-old cures to awe-struck travelers.
This is not that kind of movie. Professor Graz was curious about traditional cures used by village healers in Mali to treat malaria. Graz studied 66 plants used by village healers and the results were abysmal. “The failure rate was very high,” he laments in Scientific American.
There was one bright spot. Of the 952 patients tracked, 30 recovered completely. They had been given copious amounts of tea made from leaves of a poppy imported from Mexico in the 1800s. A cure for malaria would be truly life-saving since 200 million people become sick annually and one-half million die.
An internet search was not encouraging. Graz found one study where Mexican poppy seeds killed 65 people in India. Nevertheless, he pursued investigation and found that the leaves were safe. The he subjected the tea to the conventional pharmacology: the time-tested randomized control trial.
The trial involved 301 patients with malaria. Half were randomly picked to receive the poppy tea and the other received the conventional malaria treatment, ACT. The results were encouraging with 89 per cent who received the tea recovering and 95 per cent from ACT.
Well, why not just give everyone ACT since it is more effective? Cost, distribution and government corruption are a problem. Distrust of foreign pharmaceutical corporations is another. People are more likely to go to the local medicine man or be treated at home. In one study of Mali children who had malaria, 87 per cent were first treated at home.
Effectiveness is yet another. The more that ACT is used, the more that malaria becomes resistant to it. It makes more sense to use alternate remedies and save the costly ACT for life-threatening cases.
And the Mexican poppy tea can be made even more effective by making it more soluble. Quinine, also used to treat malaria, went through several iterations to improve efficacy.
If the traditional testing had been done, Mexican poppy tea never would advanced as a cure. In trials, the isolated active ingredient proved ineffective in fighting malaria. Why the whole leaf works is a mystery.