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Maca, Goat's Rue, Ginseng Labeling, Comfrey, Fungi, GMPs and more?

We received a considerable amount of response to last issue’s cover story on Peru’s allegation of “biopiracy” with respect to recent patents taken out on the traditional food and medicinal plant, maca (Lepidium meyenii). Some communications praised us for taking on what the writers termed an increasingly important issue, with some professors stating their intention to use the article in university ethnobotany classes. Some letters support the position of the company that owns the patents, which, as we pointed out in our article, has made these patents freely available to parties in developing nations. (See letters section on page 77) Some raised concerns about our use of the word biopiracy, a term they considered pejorative and inappropriate. Yet concerns about the exploitation and proprietization of traditional cultural knowledge is real: The New York Times reported in August 2007 on the conviction in Brazil of worldrenowned primatologist Marc van Roosmalen, who discovered 5 new species of monkey and a new primate genus.1 He has been jailed in Manaus, Brazil, to serve a 16-year sentence for his pioneering work, which is arguably beneficial for all humankind, and possibly for the monkeys too. The proprietary aspects of his case are unclear, i.e., how he or any institution would benefit economically from his discovery.

On the subject of producing scientific and technical advancements based on traditional use of herbs and medicinal plants, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the highly successful diabetes drug Glucophage (aka, metformin) into modern clinical practice. Metformin is based on a compound extracted from goat’s rue (Galega officinalis), a traditional European medicinal plant. Considering the epidemic-like proportions of diabetes in the United States alone, it is insightful to realize that the most widely-used drug for blood sugar control in diabetics is modeled after a naturally occurring compound in a traditional herb.

Another item we covered in our last issue is the attempts by Wisconsin ginseng farmers to protect their product’s market position against those who would fraudulently market Chinese- or Canadian-grown American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) roots as “Wisconsin Grown.” Shortly after our publication the Wisconsin congressional delegation introduced a bill to render such practices illegal. (More on this story in the September issue of HerbalEGram, sent to all ABC members and posted on the ABC Web site.)

In this issue of HerbalGram we include a Research Review of a clinical trial on a proprietary salve made from the roots of comfrey (Symphytum officinale) for treating symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knee. Readers may be surprised to see us covering comfrey, an herb which enjoyed widespread popularity in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom for internal and external uses about 2-3 decades ago, but whose popularity subsequently suffered due to the discovery of the presence of potentially hepatotoxic pyrrolizdine alkaloids (PAs). The German-made salve used in the trial contains a comfrey root extract with very low PA levels, meeting or exceeding German government standards.

We are honored to publish an extensive, illustrated review of “fungophile,” Paul Stamets’ recent book, Mycelium Running, in which reviewer and mushroom expert Solomon Wasser relays how various fungi mycelia and fruiting bodies are useful not only as natural medicines—many of us already know that—but are also able to act as agents of bioremediation. With the renewed interest in environmental issues it’s possible that more industrial and governmental programs will include various fungi for cleaning up toxic waste and other related uses.

The two big issues facing the herb and dietary industry in the United States this fall are the forthcoming requirements to report to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) all serious adverse events (deadline for compliance is December 27) and the development for future compliance of the FDA’s new final Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) rule for dietary supplements. Our article on GMPs explains various aspects of this lengthy and historic regulation, which provides manufacturers a remarkable level of flexibility in determining test methods, etc.

Finally, if anyone ever doubted that medicinal plant research has a bright future (as some have done in recent years), they only need to have attended the 55th annual conference of the European Society for Medicinal Plant Research held in the quaint medieval southern Austrian city of Graz this past September. Over 1000 people were in attendance this year, a record breaker. (Readers can access our report in a future issue of ABC’s online HerbalEGram.)


1. Rohter L. As Brazil defends its bounty, rules ensnare scientists. The New York Times. August 28, 2007: D1,4.