Traditional Herbal Medicine represents an important source for drug discovery.

As a Pharmacist with both conventional and phytomedicinal background I was very sensitive to the news broadcasted by the BBC on the work that won a Nobel Prize for medicine in 2015. This gave me the cue to writing a short article, as a token of gratitude, to the recent Nobel Prize winner Chinese scientist Youyou Tu, for her lifelong dedication to the research of a medicinal remedy able to help sufferers of malaria.  

 

Her contribution to the treatment of malaria, which occurred during 1960s, is an illustration and a reminder that Traditional Herbal Medicine represents an important source for drug discovery. Ms Tu relied on ancient text of Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine to obtain a therapeutic extract from a medicinal plant, Artemisia annua, which safety she evaluated on animals, herself and her colleagues, prior to administering it to affected individuals to ascertain its therapeutic effect. Ms Tu’s commitment was to apply traditional knowledge in the context of a scientific approach.

The historical context of the 1960s, created the condition which led to this advancement in research. At that time, China was engaged in a large research program to find an alternative to chloroquine, another antimalarial agent to which microorganism resistance manifested. The antimalarial drug project was initiated in 1967 where more than 500 scientists including chemists, pharmacologists, and medical entomologists took part in it. Ancient Herbal Medicine has come a long way from when its application in clinical practice was only based on traditional knowledge. Ms Tu’s work has contributed to the isolation of the active principle, known as artemisinin, from the herbal extract, which has led to the creation of artemisinin based drug.

Both phytomedicine and modern medicine rely on pharmacologically active ingredients to generate a therapeutic effect in the body to prevent, treat and manage diseases.  The devastating nature of malaria negatively affects the health and socioeconomic development of undeveloped countries of the world. At present the main drug armamentarium for the treatment of malaria is represented by three main families of compounds: quinolines, antifolates, and artemisinin derivatives. Currently, artemisisin-based combination treatment has been the therapy of choice for uncomplicated Plasmodium faciparum malaria in areas of widespread parasite choloroquine resistance. However, genes related to artemisinin resistance have been discovered. Quinine was isolated by the French scientists Pelletier and Caventou from the bark of the Cinchona sapp.  Quinine, is an alkaloid which occurs in the bark of Chincona officinalis. In light of this historical success and given the traditional use of medicinal plants by endogenous people living in malaria endemic areas there is a great interest in investigating new therapeutic possibilities through an ethnopharmacological approach. Plant usage is a result of thousands of years of experience.

With the worldwide current issue of increasing levels of drug resistance and the difficulties in poor areas of being able to afford and access effective antimalarial drugs, traditional herbal medicine still plays a vital source of treatment.

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