Medical Botany Plants as Drug Source Still Untapped

Chingcong, left, and foxglove produce two of ‘perhaps thousands of chemical compounds in common plants that could become effective new weapons in the war against disease.’

Medical Tribune, Wednesday, December 17, 1986


By Rick McGuire
International Medical Tribune News Service

LOS ANGELES – Scientists need to cultivate a greater appreciation of the medicinal power of plants. according to one scientist whose work is yielding an abundant harvest of natural medical substances.

There are literally a fey. hundred thousand chemicals known to occur in plants. and most have never been tested biologicaily,” said Neil Towers. Ph.D., professor of botany at the University of British Columbia, Canada. ”Many of these substances have been used for thousands of years as medicines, and still Western medicine appears oblivious to this rich tradition.” Recently. Dr. Towers returned from one of many trips to China, where he studies Chinese traditional medicine using the investigative tools of modem Western medicine. He notes that traditional medicine is ”well documented” in the East and that it is easy to gather the raw material, since nearly 2,000 medicinal plants are sold there in local marketplaces.

What we’re finding is that plants are absolute magicians at making chemicals.” he said. There are perhaps thousands of chemical compounds in common plants and fungi that could become effective new weapons in the war against disease.”

Unfortunately, he said, modern medicine is so consumed with its study of synthetic chemicals that natural substances are large)-` ignored.” Yet, he noted, “that’s just plain silly, because plants are wonderful chemists that are already producing thousands and thousands of chemicals that could be studied and improved upon.”

His own research seems to prove his premise that the plant kingdom is a giant, largely untapped pharmacopoeia. At a recent meeting of the American Society for Photobiology in Los Angeles, Dr. Towers presented evidence that five compounds found in the marigold and sunflower families show sins of antiviral activity. Although animal studies have yet to be conducted, if laboratory results are borne out, he said. there is a potential for a new class of drugs that would be potent against many viruses but without some of the serious side effects seen with other antiviral drugs.

Dr. Towers is not alone in his growing respect for plants. Dr. Stephen DeFelice has spent his entire professional career in the clinical research and development of drugs. The former chief of clinical pharmacology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Dr. DeFelice now chairs the Foundation for Innovation in Medicine. a nonprofit educational organization. which he also founded.

He readily admits that many of today’s medicines have evolved from plants. penicillin and other antibiotics from yeasts, the common heart drug digitalis from the foxglove plant, and quinine to treat malaria from the bark of the cinchona tree.

But he emphasizes that ”substances such as these represent only the tip of the tip of the iceberg of nature’s medical promise.” Dr. Louis Lasagna. dean of the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University, agrees-and calls research into natural substances ‘tan important but neglected area of medicine.”

In a new book, From Oysters to Insulin, Nature & Medicine at Odds. Dr. DeFelice writes, ”The time has come to harness the vast medical potential of natural substances and put them to immediate use. We urgently need to ‘boost’ our supply of natural substances as a critical step in our medical revolution to combat disease.’

However, Dr. Towers is not particularly optimistic. ”Medical people have forgotten that any doctor 300 years ago had to know botany in order to practice medicine. Nowadays, they can’t tell a peanut from a cucumber plant. Even worse, most biologists today don’t know anything about chemistry or plants.”

He also noted that the rules and regulations governing the pharmaceutical industry work against the development of natural substances because such substances are unpatentable. At an average cost of $90 million, new and improved prescription drugs are very expensive to develop and make available to the American public. Since this process often requires seven to 10 years. according to Dr. Towers. few pharmaceutical companies are willing to incur that kind of a financial liability for a product they will not be allowed to patent in order to recoup their investment.

Fortunately, Dr. DeFelice believes, the system is changing and is encouraging research and development on natural substances. He said, ”Roth U.S. and international companies are actively pursuing medical leads of natural substances made possible by new technology.”

As an example. he cited the recent establishment of the Fidia-Georgetown Institute for the Neurosciences, which has as a theme and goal: “To follow where nature leads.”

Although he admits that the main barriers to achievement in this area are ”bureaucrats in industry. government, and academia who discourage innovation,” he is convinced that there are ”highly encouraging” signs that change will be forced into the system by a very dissatisfied public. “I think our country may be in the mood for change-now,” he said.