Traditional healers may hold the key

17 Dec 2006
"Modern" medicines are, after all, made of something, almost always something organic and many, such as penicillin, at least two of the anti-malaria medicines, some heart medicines and many others were originally made from plants or moulds before being synthesised in a laboratory.

What does separate them most strongly, though, is that a medicine sold by a pharmaceutical company is guaranteed to have a standard formula, to contain no dangerous by-products and to have a specific quantity of the active ingredient.

But the medicines made in a laboratory are relatively recent, most coming in just the last century. Before the First World War there were very few synthetic medical products. Almost everything that a doctor could prescribe, or a pharmacist make up, had to be a blend of natural ingredients.

Clays, minerals, oils, herbal extracts and the like were the stock in trade of the pharmacist. And a surprising number of modern preparations are simply better refined extracts of these ancient remedies.

The first two major "laboratory" medicines were the humble asprin and the sulpha drugs, both derived from coal of all things. The antibiotics came from a common mould, two types, and the chemical formulae were then tweaked in laboratories to create whole families of drugs. But the starting point was something that grew on wet bread.

Penicillin, in fact, gives an excellent example of how a vital drug was missed for decades because of scientific and medical snobbery.

Northern European herbalists had for centuries prepared poultices of bread soaked in milk to bind onto open wounds. About half the time these worked, and there was healing with no gangrene, and about half the time they did not.

But no doctor bothered to ask why. They just rejected the explanation, admittedly false, that the poultice drew out "harmful humours", without investigating why a wound so treated had a much better chance of healing than an untreated wound.

We now know that in many cases the poultice grew a fine crop of penicillin mould that wiped out the bacteria infecting a wound, but it was not until the 1920s that a doctor fond of blue cheese noticed that his bacteria culture had been killed by a mould that was possibly edible and research started.

But how many other vital drugs are being missed?

Work has started on cataloguing and describing the vast array of herbal and other organic medicines traditional healers around the world, and especially in Africa, use but resources are extremely limited and no major drug company seems to take the slightest interest.

Just as with penicillin, the modern medical researcher rejects the traditional as "old-fashioned", "superstitious" and useless.

The traditional healer, without a fancy degree in modern biochemistry or pharmaceutics is unlikely to know why his particular mixture of herbs, prepared in a special way, cures or alleviates certain common ailments. His explanations might well be incorrect.

But what is irrefutable is that many do work, at least some of the time.

What is now needed is an intensification of research.

Some herbal preparations are unlikely to be much use. The chances are there are better laboratory preparations already in existence.

But some are likely to be just as good as what the labs have made up, and can be prepared and sold as viable alternatives, with guarantees as to purity and safety.

And somewhere there might well be something really special, like a first class anti-retroviral. After all HIV and its relatives have been floating around Africa for millennia and somehow the disease failed to spread until fairly recently.

Is there, somewhere in the tropical rain forests, a traditional healer who knows how to block the spread of a wasting disease?

We do not know, simply because no one has bothered to look.

We think the time has come for universities, medical research foundations and drug companies to start looking very hard indeed at what traditional healers do prepare, figure out the biochemistry and pharmaceutical properties of the most promising and see what can be prepared, synthesised and marketed in a modern world.

We do not know what we are missing until we do so.