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What about the medical secrets in our scriptures?

Oct 11 2015 : The Times of India (Chennai)
What about the medical secrets in our scriptures?
This year's Nobel Prize has focused international attention on traditional medicine but India is still not tapping the full potential of its herbal remedies
Sometimes it takes an old solution to crack an even older problem.T his year's Nobel Prize for medicine points to that: Three scientists who reached back into nature and traditional remedies to develop therapies to fight parasites that cause malaria, filariasis and river blindness -all diseases as old as humankind -were awarded jointly for their work.

It's research that has many Indian doctors and experts shaking their heads in regret as they say India has many more such herbs, metals and minerals that are used in natural remedies which are documented in ancient scriptures. It's just that no one has applied scientific techniques to test their efficacy and develop medicines, as Chinese doctor and Nobel winner Youyou Tu did. She drew on traditional Chinese medicine practices to rediscover a powerful plant-based antimalarial agent artemisinin.

The other two winners, William Campbell from the US, and Satoshi Omura from Japan, have isolated bacteria from soil to develop a new drug, aver mectin, which fights roundworm parasites that cause filariasis and river blindness.

“There is enormous potential in India to develop similar herb-based medicines but it is a long process and needs institutionalized programmes,“ says Delhibased cardiologist Deepak Natarajan.

India has a catalogue of herbs and much of their use has been described in ancient texts and documents but there is a gap in its dissemination. “The data is primitive. There has been no development on it, no research to gather scientific evidence or prove consistency,“ says Natarajan.

Youyou Tu and her team found a reference to the use of sweet wor mwood, in which ar temisinin is present, in a Chinese text dating back to about 400AD.“From a large-scale screen of herbal remedies in malaria-infected animals, an extract from the plant Artemisia annua emerged as an interesting candidate,“ the Nobel committee says on its website. “However, the results were inconsistent, so Tu revisited the ancient literature and discovered clues that guided her in her quest to successfully extract the active component from Artemisia annua.“

The cur rent gover nment's moves to promote traditional system of medi cines -ayurveda, unani, siddha and homeopathy (AYUSH) -have brought a ray of hope. The department was upgraded to ministry status last year and its budget allocation upped to Rs 1,214 crore. “We are commissioning research and observational studies to gather and document evidence on use of ayurvedic and homeopathic medicines,“ a senior official in the Ayush ministry said. Though the government wants to promote these streams, people do not have confidence in them due to lack of enough scientific evidence, he says.“Therefore, efforts are focused on documenting data through clinical trials and cohort studies.“

Government data shows that malaria cases in the country rose from 8.8 lakh in 2013 to 10.7 lakh in 2014. Mortality due to the disease increased from 440 deaths in 2013 to 535 in 2014. And though artemisinin-based combination therapy has helped save millions of lives across the world and India, a new worry is resistance to the drug. It's already been de tected in Myanmar, quite close to the Indian border, a recent Lancet article warned.

Besides malaria, India bears the burden of other tropical diseases such as chikungunya, dengue, encephalitis and cholera.Many parasitic and bacterial diseases and infections have become resistant to regular medication.

Despite this, research on these diseases has slowed down and attention has shifted to chronic or lifestyle diseases such as diabetes.

Herbal medicines or those based on natural products can help bring down the cost of treatment, says PK Arora, consultant, Ayurveda, at Delhi's Ganga Ram Hospital. “For instance, neem and its bark have tremendous medicinal value and can be used to treat many tropical diseases bu t u n fo r t u n at e ly, we are neither using these herbs nor promoting them,“ he says.

Experts say many of these therapies are not just cheaper but also don't have the side effects of allopathic medicines. In fact, several pharmaceutical companies have started manufacturing herb-based medicines.



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