The Medicinal Plants Imbroglio

  Visiehuno Rosa Kesiezie
Assistant Professor, Department of Botany, St. Joseph’s College Jakhama  

A lot has been written and talked about medicinal plants and their healing powers in different print and electronic media, and they pretty much tell us the same story; that medicinal plants and their products are beneficial and good for treating various bodily ailments as they are natural products and have no side effects. There is no denial about the beneficial effects of medicinal plants. The usage of medicinal plants for healing has been in practice for centuries. An example would be the ancient Hindu system of medicine known as ‘ayurveda’, which is still very much in practice today. This system uses diet, herbal treatments and yogic breathing to bring balance to bodily systems during illnesses. There is also the traditional Chinese system of medicine which is based on plants and their products.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) had estimated that 80% of population of developing countries uses herbal medicine in one way or another. In India, it is estimated that 60% of the population still relies on medicinal plants for their healthcare. One of the main reasons behind the extensive use of medicinal plants by rural people is its easy accessibility, as people living in remote rural, tribal or mountainous areas have easier access to medicinal plants than modern medicine. There is also the issue of non affordability of modern medicines by people in rural areas. Medicinal plants form a part of the social and cultural life of the tribals who are well aware of their medicinal properties. The knowledge thus gained by tribals has been passed down the generations as a guarded secret.  

Almost all plants have the ability to naturally synthesize and accumulate some substances called ‘secondary metabolites’, like alkaloids, glycosides, tannins, volatile oils, minerals and vitamins, which are generally useful chemicals having beneficial effects for humans and animals alike and which are difficult or cannot be synthesized artificially. There is an estimated 170,000 plant species found on earth and out of these, 35,000 species are recognized as medicinal plants used by people in different parts of the world.  

Despite the enormous availability of medicinal plants all over the world, the popularity of the conventional allopathic modern medicines, i.e. the synthetic drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies, still reigns over that of the herbal medicines in treatment of various ailments. Also, only a very small percentage of these useful pants have been tested and made into commercial pharmaceutical drugs. There are a lot of reasons behind this slow paced development of medicinal plants into broad based commercialized commodities.  

Medicinal plants provided the main source of medicines till the early 20th century. By the mid-80’s, interest in plant medicines, however, came down to its lowest. The plants had lost their former attraction as a source of therapeutic innovation and no major pharmaceutical company thought seriously of investing in research on plant-based medicines. The reason for this was that the alkaloids or glycosides present in nature proved to be inconsistent and their extraction often involved expenses which are not justifiable.  

Overall, in the past 45 years there has been little development of new plant based pharmaceuticals. During that period, the US Food and Drugs Association (FDA) approved fewer than a dozen drugs derived from plants. Part of the reason is simply because the development of a new FDA approved drug cost a few hundred million US dollars. Manufacturers have found that the route from plant to safe, reliable pill is difficult and unpredictable so there is limited incentive to base drug development on plants.  

One of the reasons for the huge cost for development of a medicinal plant into a pharmaceutical drug is because of the amount of time it takes for development of a safe drug. It takes up to 10 years for a prospective drug (say an untested chemical compound extract from a plant) to be transformed into a safe pharmaceutical drug. This is because the prospective drug needs to undergo detailed safety studies and multiple clinical trials and after which it has to get the approval of the regulatory authorities before the marketing of the new drug could start.  

Another reason why medicinal plant usage haven’t picked up is the fact that the bulk of knowledge of these healing plants is in the possession of only a few individuals like traditional healers or shamans of certain tribes. This knowledge is a guarded secret and it is only them who can prepare the healing concoctions from plants. Only a fraction of the knowledge of medicinal plants is known by common people. So for treatment of major ailments people need to consult the traditional healers, whose numbers are scarce as compared to conventional allopathic doctors, and so there arises the shortage of these healers.  

When it comes to the herbal medicine usage, another big deterrent is that no traditional healer would know the exact chemical composition of the herbal concoction they make. On the other hand allopathic doctors would know the composition of the drugs they prescribe and know exactly what those chemicals do when they enter the body.   Dosage of the herbal medicines is another issue. In herbal medicine there are no specific prescribed doses for adults or children. This is another problem because in order to treat a disease or ailment the right strength of the drug needs to be administered to the body to have an effect. In this regard the modern allopathic doctors take into account various factors like age and body weight of the patient before they prescribe the dose of the drug. This isn’t something traditional healers do while administering herbal medicines.  

The above are a few of the issues and challenges which need to be addressed before these traditional plant based medicines can be brought into the general population for wider usage. One approach would be to find a way to paying royalties to traditional healers or the local tribes for their knowledge and for use of the biodiversity of its land. This way the knowledge of the healing plants gets disseminated on to a broader spectrum and would find more users.  

Also, if there could be more government funded scientific research and development works on prospective medicinal plants it would encourage various individuals or groups get involved in the development of plant based medicine. If the plant derived medicine could be subjected to scientific testing and experimentation they would find a wider range of users as it would gain the confidence of prospective users.