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Many cultures throughout the world rely on indige-
nous medicinal plants for their primary health care needs.
Moreover, one quarter of modern medicines are made from plants first used bytraditional medical practitioners. Among the products that have been derivedfrom medicinal plants are the anti-cancer drug, taxol, extracted from the yew tree(Taxus
), and two anti-leukaemia drugs extracted from the Madagascar periwinkle(Catharanthus roseus
). It is interesting to note, however, that Madagascar, thesource of the periwinkle plant, did not benefit from payments or royalties fromthe pharmaceutical company that developed these highly profitable drugs.
International agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, whichpromotes “the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utiliza-tion of genetic resources”, have since given countries sovereign rights over theirindigenous biodiversity. Even so, issues relating to intellectual property rights arean integral part of developing pharmaceutical products from medicinal plants.
Given the vast amount of traditional knowledge of many communities in
developing countries pertaining to the use of medicinal plants and the wealth ofplant biodiversity present in these countries, there are many opportunities todevelop products that can be sold on both local and international markets. Thisis especially the case since, to date, the natural resources of many developingcountries have not been well studied. Plant secondary metabolites, for example,are a largely unexplored resource that could provide a wealth of new drugs totreat such ailments as malaria and other infectious diseases, cancer and diabetes.
Apart from the obvious benefits of improving health care throughout the
South by developing new medicinal products, there are also potential financialbenefits. The global market for herbal medicines alone is currently worth morethan US$60 billion a year and continues to grow steadily. The market for allo-pathic medicines derived from medicinal plants is also enormous. In addition,
VOLUME 10: EXAMPLES OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF PHARMACEUTICAL PRODUCTS FROM MEDICINAL PLANTS
the market for antimicrobial agents is now worth more than US$25 billion per year. However,the global emergence of resistance to antimicrobial agents — antibiotic-resistant bacteria havebeen found in nearly every country in the world — is increasingly limiting the effectiveness ofcurrent drugs. New compounds to combat this problem are in great demand, especially as pastexperience indicates that bacteria can quickly develop resistance to new drugs. The problemhas been exacerbated as no new classes of antibiotics were released in the 37 years between theintroduction of nalidixic acid in 1962 and linezolid in 2000. All of the antibacterial agents thatentered the market during this period were modifications of existing molecules.
The knowledge-sharing process promoted by the partnership between UNDP and TWNSO
includes an international workshop and the publication of a volume in the series, Sharing InnovativeExperiences
. The objective of the International Workshop on the Development of PharmaceuticalProducts from Medicinal Plants in the Developing World, therefore, was to bring together scien-tists with experience in searching for and developing pharmaceutical products from medicinalplants indigenous to developing countries so that they could exchange ideas and benefit from oneanother’s successes. The workshop highlighted several areas for discussion:
• importance of traditional knowledge.
Activities should focus on collecting indigenous
knowledge about plants and their uses. Results should be shared with local communities that have provided information to demonstrate to them the value of their cultural heritage.
• importance of conservation and sustainable use.
Scientists should be aware of the threats to
plant populations caused by over-exploitation. Plant collection and other activities should be in agreement with appropriate domestic and international laws,such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of WildFauna and Flora (CITES). Whenever required, permits and licenses should beobtained from local authorities and from landowners if private land is involved.
Education and perhaps domestication and reforestation projects are also importantto promote the conservation of biological resources — the “raw materials” of ourdrug discovery programmes.
• importance of basic research.
Without the rigorous application of scientific methods to
isolate and test biologically active compounds, including clinical trials, knowledge ofthe medicinal properties of plants can be regarded as only anecdotal. In addition, theisolation of single chemical compounds is inadequate, as properties attributed to manymedicinal plants could be due to a mixture of active ingredients. Potentially usefuldrugs may also be developed using a natural product as a key input, but by syntheticallymodifying its structure, a more effective or safer product can be created.
• importance of commercialization.
The ultimate aim of research into medicinal plants should be
to develop a commercial product. Ideally, basic science should reach the needs of the
people in the short term. It is also clear that science and the application of science mustreturn benefits to the communities that provided the initial knowledge of the medicinalplant, aiding their economic development and improving their quality of life.
• importance of knowledge-sharing.
Sharing scientific knowledge with indigenous communities
has already been identified as desirable. There is also a need for scientists to share theirknowledge with one another as well as with pharmaceutical companies, policy-makersand other organizations concerned with sustainable development. The creation of anetwork of scientists interested in all aspects of the development of pharmaceuticalproducts from medicinal plants in the developing world will, it is hoped, assist in theexchange of scientific ideas, information, technologies and perhaps even students andother researchers. For more information about this network, contact the TWNSOsecretariat at [email protected]
• need for a knowledge database.
A database of medicinal plants, including their distribution,
conservation status, uses and other attributes, should be developed. Such a databaseshould include precise geographical locations of the plant resources, which will help scientists to locate the species if re-collection is necessary. Ideally, databases should befreely available to the scientific community and the public. The creation of a historicalrecord of community knowledge that can be shared with future generations is also desirable.
The case studies presented at the workshop — and reproduced in this volume —
covered all these issues and others. Whether the research was focused on high-tech labora-tory experiments involving biochemistry and molecular biology or on a clinic dispensingstandardized botanical products in safe doses, there are lessons to be learned. The take-homemessage is that if countries in the South apply scientific principles to the development ofpharmaceutical products derived from their natural plant resources, they stand to benefit notonly from the improved health, and therefore productivity, of their people but also from thelikely development of commercial products.
Such development, however, must be carried out in a sustainable manner with respect to
both the plant resources and the by-products generated during the production process. Onlyscience can help with these issues, highlighting the importance to developing countries ofbuilding their indigenous scientific capacity.
In summary, all our research must be addressed to promoting the role and the significance
of science in promoting sustainable development.
Professor of Botany, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, Santiago, Chile
Chair of the Advisory Board of the TWNSO medicinal plants project
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