Get Involved
About Us
Our Members

Ethnopharmacology by Michael Heinrich and Anna K. Jäger, eds. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2015. Hardcover, 462 pages. ISBN: 978-1-118-93074-8. $110.00.

Ethnopharmacology is part of a series of textbooks produced by the ULLA Consortium, a European academic collaboration in teaching and research of pharmaceutical sciences. (“ULLA” is derived from the first letters of the founding universities of Uppsala, Leiden, London, and Amsterdam.) As explained in the foreword, the main audience of the book is PhD and other postgraduate students in the fields of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences. Edited by Michael Heinrich, PhD, and Anna K. Jäger, PhD, the book contains 34 chapters, each written by experts in the field.

The book is separated into three sections, the first of which addresses the fundamental challenges of ethnopharmacological research. It starts with the meaning of the term “ethnopharmacology,” which — as the reader will observe — is not as clear as it may seem. In the book’s preface, 29 definitions of “ethnopharmacology” by various scholars are given, and a few additional explanations are found throughout the book. I liked the explanation by Elizabeth Williamson, PhD, for its simplicity: “Ethnopharmacology is the study of natural medicines used by people of different cultures, and how these medicines may work.” There are, however, many other ways to explain what the discipline encompasses.

A number of other important aspects regarding the fundamental challenges of ethnopharmacology are brought up within the first section. Jäger reflects on the questions about the deliverables of ethnopharmacological research: Should it be new drug leads, or new herbal medicines? Is the goal to rationally explain the traditional uses of herbal medicines in the various cultures, or should the researchers strive to evaluate the efficacy, safety, and toxicology of traditional medicines in order to improve the local health care system?

Other chapters in this section discuss biodiversity and protection of medicinal plants in the wild and the intellectual property (IP) rights of the indigenous peoples who possess knowledge about medicinal plant use. Given the increaing popularity of many botanical medicines, and the fact that only a small number of medicinal plant species are cultivated, sustainable harvesting practices are crucial if herbal medicine is to be available for future generations. Two chapters by Vernon H. Heywood, PhD, and Geoffrey A. Cordell, PhD, respectively, suggest ways to alleviate pressure on plants that are threatened by overharvesting.

The legal challenges with IP rights for indigenous peoples are explained in chapters by Heinrich and Alan Hesketh, PhD, respectively. Questions about who owns the IP (which can be difficult to determine since the same plant may have similar uses among people from many cultures) and how and when the IP owners should be reimbursed are explored using a number of case studies. The chapters also discuss regional differences in relation to the legal situations, with some countries welcoming international collaboration and others enacting regulations that “prevent access by outside workers.” The choice of authors from both academia and industry to write chapters on the IP topic is particularly welcome, since these two sectors generally do not have the same approach to ethnopharmacological research and IP issues.

A great chapter in the first section is “The Anthropology of Ethnopharmacology,” written by Ina Vandebroek, PhD, and Daniel E. Moerman, PhD. It shows that ethnopharmacology can be studied in rather unexpected places, such as in New York City, and that it is not restricted to the use of herbal medicine in past centuries, but that it is a dynamic field of research and very much alive in the 21st century. The authors also discuss the importance of the spiritual aspects of healing, and that the healing process not only involves physical symptoms, but also should address the mental aspects of the problem. This holistic approach to healing is often neglected when researchers attempt to transfer findings from the field into a laboratory.

The second section of the book includes chapters that summarize findings about specific pharmacological topics, such as antibacterial and antimalarial drug leads, botanicals for central nervous system disorders, respiratory conditions, inflammatory diseases, endocrine and urological problems, bone and joint health, and metabolic disorders. Most chapters contain a short introduction about the topic of interest and illustrate the importance of ethnopharmacological research with a small number of cases. Examples include arnica (Arnica montana, Asteraceae), devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens, Pedaliaceae), Chinese skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis, Lamiaceae), cayenne (Capsicum annuum, syn. C. frutescens, Solanaceae) or turmeric (Curcuma longa, Zingiberaceae) as examples of anti-inflammatory medicines; or the use of marshmallow (Althaea officinalis, Malvaceae), echinacea (Echinacea spp., Asteraceae), ephedra (Ephedra sinica, Ephedraceae) or thyme (Thymus vulgaris, Lamiaceae) for respiratory conditions. On the other hand, some chapters detail long lists of plants used for a specific condition (e.g., plants used for bone and joint disorders, or plants used for wound healing in Ghana). The section also includes chapters on the marketing and clinical aspects of ethnopharmacological research.

The final section provides perspectives from around the globe, with chapters on ethnopharmacology in sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Southeast Asia, Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean countries, the Middle East, Australia and Oceania, Central and South America, and Mexico. The section also contains an excellent chapter on the importance of processing ingredients used in traditional Chinese medicine. The authors, Ping Guo, PhD, Eric Brand, and Zhongzhen Zhao, PhD, emphasize the relevance of crude raw material processing and give examples of how differences in preparation, such as cutting, frying, steaming, and stewing of an herb, will lead to changes in its phytochemical profile that affect the efficacy and/or toxicity of an herb. This is another important aspect of ethnopharmacology that sometimes gets lost in translation from the field into the laboratory.

Some of the chapters have a very narrow focus, such as the overview on epidermal growth factor receptors and downstream signaling pathways as cancer treatment targets, the chapter on Ghanaian medicinal plants for wound healing, and the chapter on ethnopharmacology in elementary, primary, and secondary education. These chapters seem a bit of a mismatch with the general theme of the book. Overall, however, the book gives a good overview of ethnopharmacology and the overarching research topics that it encompasses. The convergence of anthropology, botany, chemistry, pharmacology, and medicine makes ethnopharmacology not only a fascinating area of research, but also a challenging one, since expertise in all these areas is required. The open and honest discussions about the challenges related to research in the field may be the most beneficial parts of the book for those who are considering or undertaking a career in academia, the principal audience of the book (although the difficulties to obtain funding to do such research are not mentioned). Even those who are not university researchers but who have a genuine interest in ethnopharmacology may find many of the chapters an interesting read.

—Stefan Gafner, PhD
ABC Chief Science Officer
Austin, Texas