Medicinal plants in spotlight

For centuries, and even millennia, plants have been used as humanity’s prime healing agents. In the last century synthetic pharmaceuticals have come to dominate medicine in the Western world, although large portions of the planet’s population still turn to plants for healing. Now some Western researchers have turned their attention to the genetics of what makes some plants more medicinal than others.

Many well-known pharmaceutical medicines have been derived from plants. The plant foxglove provides the heart muscle stimulant digoxin. The periwinkle provides the chemotheraoy agents vinicristine and vinblastine. Perhaps most well known of all, the bark of the white willow tree has yielded acetyl-salicylic acid (aspirin). The recent trend however, has been toward synthesising new chemicals for use as drugs. Perhaps as a result there have been fewer new drugs making it to market over the last decade.

In response to this researchers have undertaken a $6 million (US) initiative, funded by the National Institute of Health and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to gather available data on the genetics of medicinal plants and discover what healing properties are encoded in the genes.

The aim of this research is to establish how plants make health promoting chemicals with a view to eventually engineering plants to produce medicinally useful compounds. The gene profiles of fourteen plants including foxglove, ginseng, and periwinkle have been studied.

While the intention of uncovering the blueprint behind nature’s healing capacity is admirable, let’s hope that it will not be at the cost of a reverence for the healing synergy that plants offer. Knowledge is a good thing, but it should not be confused with understanding.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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