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 Herbal Rememdies


By Joel Swerdlow, with assistance from Michele Callaghan, and Ari Johnson

Alkaloids from the Madagascar rosy periwinkle cure most cases of childhood leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease. Nonetheless, of the more than 10,000 plant species found on the island, I know of no other plant indigenous to Madagascar that has been tapped for a modern medicine.

The failure of modern science to capitalize on the benefits of medicinal plants extends far beyond Madagascar. Most drugs from plants were discovered before the mid-20th century. According to my research, no new drug has come out of the Amazon rain forest beyond those based on plants encountered by the conquistadores and their successors more than 300 years ago. Further, I identified only two modern drugs to have come out of China’s massive traditional pharmacopoeia; and no modern drugs, with the possible exception of some kinds of birth control pills, are based on Native American uses of medicinal herbs.

Economics are part of the reason. The process of extracting a pure chemical entity from natural material can be patented, but plants and their compounds cannot be. Furthermore, modern science trying to extract a single active compound from a plant is much like opening a radio and trying to find the part that makes the sound. With development of a new FDA-approved drug costing as much as 500 million U.S. dollars, manufacturers have limited incentive when the route from plant to safe pill is so difficult and unpredictable.

Yet, thanks in large part to growing frustration with modern medicine and to a growing awareness of what herbs can offer, herbal remedies are enjoying a tremendous surge in popularity. Americans now spend the equivalent of more than five billion U.S. dollars on herbal remedies—a figure that keeps rising dramatically.

This raises important questions:

  Should we expand our notions of medicine and health care to formally include the preventative and immune-system-boosting effects of some herbal remedies?

What, if anything, should be done to encourage the pharmaceutical industry to utilize plants better?

Should medical insurance companies and government health plans pay for herbal remedies? If so, how can we guarantee safety and accurate labeling?

How best can we protect plant species when the growing demand for herbal remedies threatens them with extinction?

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