The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for 2015, which has been awarded to three researchers who “have transformed the treatment of parasitic diseases”, looks like gold rush material. Two of the awardees, William C Campbell of the US and Satoshi Omura of Japan, who have developed a drug against roundworms, found their source material in plain earth. The third, Youyou Tu of the China Academy of Traditional Medicine, found her source material for an anti-malaria drug in the work of the fourth century physician and alchemist Ge Hong. It would be tempting to compare him with Charaka, but his influence has ranged far wider across disciplines, from pharmacology to the Tao.
Apart from the thread of research on parasites which holds the three scientists together, they have all relied on natural substances which are either found just lying about, or have existed in the traditional pharmacopoeia for millennia. According to life science lore, Omura discovered strains of Streptomyces from soil at his golf course which had antibacterial properties. This week, he clarified that it was soil near the golf course, deflating the mythical quality of his finding somewhat. Campbell identified a component of the Streptomyces culture which was effective against parasites carried by domestic and farm animals. Isolated as ivermectin, it is active against worms which are transmitted to humans and cause diseases like elephantiasis.
The team on which Youyou worked was charged by the Chinese government to seek antimalarial drugs in the literature of traditional medicine. That was in the 1960s, and North Vietnamese soldiers were expected to be the primary beneficiaries. Half a century later artemisinin, a molecule derived from sweet wormwood, which has been known in Chinese medicine as qinghao, has probably saved millions of lives. Wormwood has been used as an antipyretic and anti-inflammatory in Europe, too, for millennia.
Both drugs, and artemisinin in particular, serve as reminders of the obvious—biological materials which are currently of zero value, or actually depressed by negative sentiment, may in the future assume tremendous market value. This has happened quite frequently in the recent last. Turmeric, a popular anti-inflammatory in the traditional Indian pharmacopoeia, drew the attention of arthrologists and trauma specialists, and attempts to patent their formulations had to be resisted. Tulsi used to be derided as jadi-booti, but markets gave its antitussive properties a thumbs up, and pharma companies have incorporated it into cough formulations.
A number of drug firms have made a killing by focusing on the herbal segment and marketing popular remedies like neem and guggulu in modern form, as pills and capsules. Of course, the commercial success of these formulations is not necessarily indicative of their efficacy, but only reflects popular demand. For instance, while the curative property of turmeric is clinically established, that of the numerous liver tonics on the market, which have been popular for half a century, is not beyond doubt.
More testing of traditional remedies and publication of the results is clearly needed. The first step in such a project, a taxonomy of medicinal plants and materials, has been taken with databases like those maintained by the National Medicinal Plants Board and Sam Pitroda’s Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg, since the long-term project should be not only to test the claims of ayurveda but all knowledge systems, stretching from homoeopathy, which also draws on natural substances, to orally and culturally transmitted tribal medicine.
It is not clear if the learned savants on the right, who are generally interested in historical issues, currently the time for such an exhaustive process, since their energies are currently exhausted in claiming historicity for the scriptures and nuclear shield capabilities for cowdung. The success of such a project would depend, rather, on politically unaffiliated scientists, backed by industry and government in the hope of of profits and public benefit.
Generally speaking, biological materials such as those used by the researchers who bagged the medicine Nobels this year do have the capacity to spark off a gold rush or two. However, it’s not just about money. As India’s pharma patents regime has shown, the value and ownership of substances which alter the quality of life is not commercial alone; it is conditioned by ethical and human concerns and may deliver benefits rather than revenues. Even so, the commercial value of living materials in search of future uses appears to be enormously rewarding.