In an ideal world, the staff of HerbMedPro (HMP) would keep the HMP database fully updated all the time. We are continually adding new herbs to the database and updating existing herb records, but this is an intensive process. To keep HMP totally updated would require a massive number of compilers working relentlessly. Instead, we provide users with a powerful key feature for automatic updating, named Dynamic Updates. Search terms are provided to automatically pull up all the most recent publications for any specific category of research and information for each herb from the PubMed database, enabling continuous, up-to-date coverage for users.
Basically, Dynamic Updates provides a precomputed search string that is automatically plugged into the PubMed search screen. PubMed, the online interface for the US National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database, is limited. It cannot provide exhaustive information on herbal research, and the HMP team of expert compilers does not rely on PubMed alone when compiling a new herb record or identifying the relevant literature for a full update; they also use a range of other research and empirical resources. PubMed is, however, still a vast and important resource and provides an effective tool for quick, live updates—particularly as a temporary solution until HMP staff members are able to perform more exhaustive updating.
To access the Dynamic Updates feature within HMP, the user can go to the specific herb record of choice. For instance, a user may be interested in reviewing relevant information on red clover (Trifolium pratense, Fabaceae). Scrolling down to History of Record on the herb page reveals that the herb record was compiled in September 2009 and that there has been no update yet. Now, scrolling down the list of categories to Dynamic Updates and clicking on PubMed Searches shows a list of 15 subcategories:
Trifolium or “red clover” and Analytical Chemistry;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Animal Studies;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Case Reports;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Clinical Trials;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Drug Interactions;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Ethnobotanical Use;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Genetics;
Trifolium or “red clover” and In Vitro Studies;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Pharmacodynamics;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Pharmacokinetics;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Preparations & Formulary;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Reference Standards;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Safety & Toxicology;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Therapeutic Activity;
Trifolium or “red clover” and Tissue Culture.
If the user’s main area of interest is clinical trials, clicking on “Trifolium or ‘red clover’ and Clinical Trials” will return the most recent publications relating to clinical trials from the PubMed database. The next step is to cross-check the search results with the current record in HMP. At the time of this writing, the live PubMed search found only one new trial.
The search terms used vary from herb to herb and the researcher/compiler experiments with different combinations of Latin and common names to optimize search results. Common names can sometimes bring up extraneous entries. But one recent anomaly was Theobrama cacao (Sterculiaceae), better known as cocoa or chocolate. It was found that searches were more productive when using the common name “chocolate” as the search term. Thus, it all depends on how PubMed translates the query, and our researchers have to find the best strategy for each herb through trial and error. The exact search string entered can be viewed in the Search details panel on the right of the PubMed results page.
Searches for St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum, Clusiaceae) represent another example. One researcher found that fewer results are returned when searching with the string “Hypericum perforatum” than any other search. However, once the string “St. John’s wort” is included, it does not matter whether the botanical name is entered or how it is entered; the same number of results is produced. Hypericum perforatum is one of the 20 herbs freely available on the public version, HerbMed (at: www.herbmed.org/Herbs/Herb121.htm).
HMP records appear to be displayed in monograph, categorized format. However, these displays are not static, and what the visitor sees is not the database. There is an underlying database structure of data fields and tables, rules, and relationships. The records seen on the screen are dynamically generated and ever-changing from this underlying resource, and this is why they can be automatically and instantly updated using live links—the unique and powerful Dynamic Updates feature.
Jacqueline Wootton, MEd, is president of the Alternative Medicine Foundation, Inc, Potomac, MD. She initiated and directs the HerbMed® interactive herbal database and developed the professional version, HerbMedPro, available worldwide by subscription or on license through the American Botanical Council.