Bringing Alternative Medicine into the Mainstream

A week back, the Gov­ern­ment of India issued a press release that ref­er­enced the Gold­en Tri­an­gle Part­ner­ship Scheme. Now, the Econ­o­mist has a more elab­o­rate arti­cle on it:

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.

alt_med 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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  • Sad­ly stu­dents opt­ing for med­i­cine after 12th pick Ayurve­da as a last option, so the area gets less tal­ent­ed indi­vid­u­als. Maybe thats because there is not much mon­ey in Ayurve­da. Some­where I read that 40% of Indi­ans avoid vis­it­ing the Allo­path­ic doc­tor sim­ply because they pre­fer to try Grandma’s solu­tion first (maybe Ram­bodoc can sec­ond this).
    And Home­opa­thy? Is it even a real sci­ence?
    I appre­ci­ate the ini­tia­tive! How­ev­er, 5 lakh is insignif­i­cant amount, espe­cial­ly due to the red tape you men­tioned!

    PS: You have a image cred­it, but I can’t see no image (thats Amer­i­can­ised eng­lish) 😉

  • Priyank: true, you point out an inter­est­ing fact, that as a less­er attrac­tive career option, it gets less tal­ent­ed indi­vid­u­als. If and only if such projects and efforts suc­ceed in mak­ing it main­stream, can the eco­nom­ic poten­tial of these ther­a­pies be real­ized.

    There were attempts to prove Home­opa­thy was a sci­ence, but as far as I know, they’ve been refut­ed.

    Hope the image is now vis­i­ble. I had linked exter­nal­ly to it, and could see it in my brows­er, but then used a local copy. Thanks for let­ting me know!

  • This is not going to work. I guar­an­tee this. The rea­son is that the drug tri­als, in order to be of the high­est lev­el, will be beyond the bud­get of all these com­pa­nies, who don’t have a mind­set to invest heav­i­ly on R&D, hav­ing been con­tent with steal­ing patents in some way or the oth­er all these years. If prop­er high lev­el evi­dence is col­lect­ed, most of these herbal cures may be found to be BS, effec­tive­ly wip­ing them out as mar­ketable prod­ucts. In all prob­a­bil­i­ty, the drugs will be used in poor­ly designed Third World-mode tri­als, and will claim roar­ing effi­ca­cies, but nev­er see it reflect­ed in prac­tice. Just like today, these prod­ucts are avail­able, with zero evi­dence. So we would have, essen­tial­ly, come full cir­cle.
    Yeah, a stray won­der drug may be dis­cov­ered, but I don’t think it is going to hap­pen any day soon.

  • Ram­bodoc: thanks for sub­stan­ti­at­ing my pes­simism, with your knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence in this field. Now, what both­ers me is the $40 mil­lion our gov­ern­ment is spend­ing on this. That is a lot of mon­ey. Is this real­ly “get­ting wis­er”?

  • //what both­ers me is the $40 mil­lion our gov­ern­ment is spend­ing on this. That is a lot of money.//Don’t wor­ry about that @mahendrap. Our govt will find some oth­er avenues to waste mon­ey if not this.More than 50%of the allo­cat­ed mon­ey will go to the babus any­ways.

  • I agree with Pr3rna. I dont think much of that amount will reach its intend­ed des­ti­na­tion any­way. Its dif­fi­cult for ayurve­da to attract tal­ent­ed indi­vid­u­als for sure, maybe its grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty in the west can change this years down the line. But we need to fight for those patents any­way.

  • I agree with Ram­bodoc and Oemar. Mon­ey is going to be wast­ed just like that. The real chal­lenge in herbal med­i­cine is to iden­ti­fy the key metabo­lites or protein/enzyme or organ­ic com­pound use­ful for the cure and to patent it and use for pro­duc­ing high­ly effi­cient drugs. It needs sophis­ti­cat­ed equip­ments like chro­mato­graph­ic machines and DNA and pro­tein sequencers, etc and relat­ed cost­ly con­sum­ables and skilled man­pow­er to achieve it. If the Govt. real­ly wants to do some­thing viable, then it need to col­lab­o­rate with orga­ni­za­tions like Reddy’s lab (who have the nec­es­sary skilled man­pow­er and equip­ments in place) to do the high end mol­e­c­u­lar work, while also col­lab­o­rat­ing with oth­er govt research orga­ni­za­tions and hos­pi­tals to car­ry out the part of work where they have their advan­tage (such as tri­als).

  • Yes, Thiru — what they call ‘pub­lic-pri­vate-part­ner­ship’ seems to be a pos­si­ble viable approach in many of our country’s chal­lenges — infra­struc­ture, med­i­cine, and so on!

  • when u men­tion ‘alter­na­tive med­i­cine’ I can atleast accept Ayurvedic reme­dies. In a few sim­ple ail­ments , looks like it helps..atleast its kind of men­tal con­di­tion­ing. Like the gin­ger tea that is giv­en as cure for cold…God knows it has nev­er got­ten rid of the virus , but atleast its sooth­ing.
    But talk about rei­ki and pranic…it gets on my nerves.
    home­opa­thy is anoth­er sham.

  • Sree: I wouldn’t go so far as to term home­opa­thy a ‘sham’. I’m with you regard­ing Rei­ki and prob­a­bly Pran­ic, with respect to its mys­ti­cal foun­da­tions. But regard­ing home­opa­thy, I wouldn’t say things are so sim­ple. Home­opa­thy seems to have worked in many cas­es, and there are strong argu­ments for it. But, no sci­en­tif­ic basis. So, I’m an ‘agnos­tic’ regard­ing home­opa­thy.