By Mark Blumenthal
Although it was not our initial intention, our 3 feature articles in this issue all pertain in one way or another to medicinal plants of the tropics. Our cover story on Ramuan, the traditional medicinal plant culture of Malaysia, is a subject I’ve wanted to cover in HerbalGram for nearly 3 years. I had the opportunity to visit Kuala Lumpur, the vibrant and modern megapolis in Malaysia, in 2006 when I presented at a conference on Women’s Health and Asian Traditional Medicine, and I was impressed by how the government of this rapidly economically-developing nation has committed to fostering research and product development based on Malaysia’s rich array of medicinal plants. Our old friend, associate editor, and ABC Board of Trustee Chairman Steven Foster has written an article on the history and culture of Malaysia and how some of the more well-researched traditional herbal medicines are being developed for local and international markets—a salient example of modern efforts to commercialize a rich ethnobotanical tradition that is little-known in the West.
One of the major public health challenges of many tropical areas is combating malaria, particularly due to problems associated with the parasite’s ability to develop resistance to conventional pharmaceutical drugs (the original drug having been the alkaloid quinine, derived from the bark of the South American Cinchona officinalis tree). In this issue, Kevin Spelman, PhD, a molecular biologist and herbalist, developing a theme from one of his primary herb teachers, Dr. Jim Duke, provides an essay on the benefits of multi-component plant-derived medicines and the pharmacological superiority of such (particularly in the fight against malaria) versus the single chemical entity drugs that have characterized the history of the development of the modern pharmaceutical industry. This has been a constant theme—one might call it a crusade—by Duke, who has written and spoken extensively on his preference for the putative benefits of chemically complex “herbal shotgun” remedies compared to pharmaceutical “silver bullet” drugs. This article was originally intended to serve as a lengthy sidebar to Spelman’s cover story in HerbalGram #74, in which he discussed the nearly-forgotten Cinchona Gardens in Jamaica. On further reflection, however, it was decided that the topic warranted more in-depth coverage.
Continuing the tropical theme, our staff writer and assistant editor Kelly Saxton Lindner has written an account of how one small pharmaceutical company has developed a successful medicine from the red “dragon’s blood” latex of the famed sangre de drago (Croton lechleri) tree of the Amazon’s basin and montane areas. Widely used by indigenous healers of the area for a variety of applications, the latex contains proanthocyanidin oligomers, which Napo Pharmaceuticals has isolated into a drug for use in the life-threatening chronic diarrhea associated with HIV/AIDS, severe cholera-induced fluid loss, traveler’s diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome, in which diarrhea is predominant. Napo has developed a program for sustainable harvesting of the trees’ latex, with numerous economic and social benefits for the indigenous communities involved with the trees’ re-planting and latex collection. As I write this, ABC is starting its annual “Pharmacy from the Rainforest” ethnobotany ecotours in the Peruvian Amazon and Andean highlands. One of my most salient memories of my dozen or so trips to the Amazon is taking the healing red sap of this tree and rubbing it in my hands, only to watch the red viscous liquid magically transform into a dry white powder!