India, too, has a long tradition of herbal medicine, and its government is keen that this tradition should be brought into the mainstream, to the profit of the country’s burgeoning drug industry. To that end, it is spending about $40m on what is known as the Golden Triangle Partnership, to assess the country’s herbs scientifically, and select those suitable for serious investigation.
Most Indian herbal remedies are based on the Ayurvedic system of medicine, although Tamil-based Siddha and Unani, which has Persian roots, are also used extensively. Proving their worth is a daunting task. There are 80,000 Ayurvedic treatments alone, involving the products of some 3,000 plants. More than 7,000 firms make herbal compounds for medical use. Establishing the active ingredients and exactly how they work would thus take some time.
The Golden Triangle Partnership is not, however, looking for new molecules to turn into chemically pure drugs. Instead, it proposes to make herbal medicine itself more scientific by conducting clinical trials of traditional treatments for more than 20 medical conditions. These include arthritis, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, malaria and psoriasis.
To do that means getting the country’s drug companies to take part in what is, for them, the non-traditional activity of traditional medicine. One of these firms, Ranbaxy, has already opened a small research and development division for herbal medicine and is beginning to look at remedies for conditions such as diabetes.
What are the exact means and objectives of this effort?
To encourage such developments the project’s partners are trying to identify how the potency of herbs varies with exposure to the sun, the type of soil in which they are grown, and when and how they are harvested. With that information, they can define standard doses and clinical trials can begin. If the trials succeed, the treatments that result should be patentable—unlike the traditional formulations.
A bit sarcastically, the article is titled “Growing wiser”. Yes, on the whole, I think the objective is great. The more we are able to make alternative product development a scientific process, the better. At present, anyone can package anything and sell it as an Ayurvedic product, with no tests or checks. The Government promised Rs. 5 lakhs (INR 500,000) to all ayurvedic firms encouraging them to go in for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certification, but I’m not sure how much of it went to the bureaucrats for bribes in getting the certification.
While this is all good, I’m not sure about the patentability of Homeopathic treatments. How can a therapy that increases the potency of a substance by diluting it further with water, and thus contradicts the laws of chemistry and physics, get patents? Will it convince the skeptics?
I’m not against alternative medicine. In fact, I would love it to be more scientific and less misused. It may be a huge economic opportunity for India if we’re able to patent and export alternative medicinal remedies that have gained scientific acceptability. I’m just not too optimistic about it yet.
Image Credit: UK Skeptics
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