Last week I told you about an exciting new research center called Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research headed by Professor Elliot Altman at MTSU.
Recall that the center is working in collaboration with the Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants in Guanxi Province of China to develop new drugs from traditional medicinal plants.
In our culture of Western-based prescription medicines, we have become largely separated from the notion that plants are used for their curative properties. Although most readers will have a general awareness of some herbal preparations, most will think of chemical laboratories rather than live plants as the source of their medications.
To illustrate the importance of this type of research, we need to look no further than the growing concern regarding a possible outbreak of avian influenza, or bird flu. For the last several years the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have warned that an outbreak of bird flu could erupt with potentially devastating results. The threat again looms large as fall approaches.
The drug most widely used to treat patients with bird flu as well as other influenza illness is a product called Tamiflu. Tamiflu has been stockpiled and is dosed carefully due to limited supply. There is always concern about whether supplies of the drug will be sufficient to treat large numbers of patients if an epidemic were to occur.
The drug supply is limited primarily due to the fact that the primary ingredient cannot be easily synthesized. Although research is underway to discover ways to synthesize the active ingredient, for now it largely depends on collecting the natural raw ingredient, shikimic acid. This component is obtained primarily from the star anise plant.
And where, would you guess, does 80% of the world’s supply of star anise derive?
If you guessed the Guanxi province in China you would be correct.
Thus, treatment for a potential outbreak of this deadly virus is largely dependent upon the cultivation of star anise plant in the Guanxi province of China.
Botanical products have been known to have anti-cancer and anti-viral properties for centuries. It is easy to see from this one example how vital it is to promote ongoing research into identifying and developing the effective components of botanical medicines.
There are literally thousands of plants that are used for their medicinal properties. These plants grow wild and have been harvested for millennia by indigenous people around the world.
Regardless of your ancestry, you come from a long line of ancestors that once used plant products to treat illness and injury.
In our culture it is easy to believe that the synthetic drugs widely available through pharmacies have replaced botanical medicines. In fact, this is not completely true.
Synthetic drug formulation has its advantages. It is more reliable to synthesize a drug in a laboratory. The manufacturer is not dependent upon weather forces and nature’s variables for their supply. There is also consistency in synthetic production of drugs. Every batch can be produced to exacting specifics.
In botanical medicine, the whole plant or sometimes plant parts such as roots, stems, fruits or leaves are used to make a brew, powder, or some other product. The end result may be consumed orally, inhaled, applied topically or otherwise introduced to the body.
However, problems arise due to variables. The crop for a particular plant may suffer from drought or the relative strength or concentration of a particular substance may vary from year to year or by region.
Although many botanicals have great proven effectiveness, the inexactness of their results and unpredictability of the availability create downsides.
When I asked Dr. Altman if the TCBMR is working to bring the ancient benefits of traditional botanical medicine into the 21st century, he said that is exactly the intent.
The collaboration between MTSU and Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants brings together the value of ancient botanical medicines with the advantages of modern chemical processing.
As to the immediate goals of the Center, Dr. Altman told me that they are already working on a number of substances that have anti-viral or anti-cancer properties. The Center intends to identify which of these substances has the best prospects for being developed into an effective drug with commercial potential then proceed to develop those products in cooperation with other pharmaceutical partners.
It is important to note that the TCBMR at MTSU is working to isolate the active chemical from the botanicals and either purify it, such as the case with Tamiflu, or determine a way to synthesize it once the structure is known.
The TCBMR does not intend to generate actual whole-plant botanical products as is typical in Traditional Chinese medicine.