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Medicinal Plants: Biodiversity and Drugs

Medicinal Plants: Biodiversity and Drugs edited by Mahendra Rai, Geoffrey A. Cordell, José L. Martinez, Mariela Marinoff, and Luca Rastrelli. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2012. Hardcover, 688 pages. ISBN: 978-1578087938. $149.95.

When I first picked up this book, I imagined it would contain several chapters on the history of drugs developed from plants and the importance of biological diversity, a topic that has been the subject of numerous books and hundreds of articles and book chapters. As I read the foreword by Michael Heinrich, PhD, the preface by the editors, and the first chapter by Geoffrey Cordell, PhD, I quickly understood that this was not another book on the origin of plant-derived drugs, rather it is a collection of 21 chapters presenting state-of-the-art information on a wide range of important areas of medicinal plant research with a unifying theme of health and healing, rooted in many distinct and interrelated scientific disciplines.

The first chapter, by Professor Emeritus of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacognosy Dr. Cordell, titled “New Strategies for Traditional Medicine,” is destined to be become a classic and is a must-read, 40-page masterpiece on many of the core issues of traditional medicine including, but not limited to, regulatory policies, use, ethics, development, quality, conservation, sustainable production, and global public health. The book is worth owning for that chapter alone. I am in no way slighting the excellent and rigorous contributions of the authors of the other 20 chapters in this volume. In fact, taken together, these are some of the best research papers and teams that I have read in the past few years. I was especially delighted to read the sections of Chapter 1 focusing on World Health Organization initiatives, declarations, policies and regulations — creating a voice for traditional medicine, information systems, debunking myths of traditional medicine, ethics in medicinal plant research — and, my favorite section of the chapter, a brief discussion of long-term accessibility and sustainability. The foreword by Dr. Heinrich also focuses on the whole-systems questions about value chains in the production of plant-based medicines, who benefits, how quality is maintained, and general questions/challenges to understand the complexity of “seed to product” in plant medicines, similar in many ways to the “cradle-to-the-grave” analysis that is the focus of ecologically oriented product manufacturers.

This book presents an array of medicinal plant research of great importance to global public health. The therapeutic areas of research presented include chapters on plants used to treat diabetes, malaria, inflammation, neurological disorders, cancer, and antibacterial and antiviral effects from plant-derived essential oils. Two chapters explore the biological activity and botanical origins of honey bee propolis. An integrated volume with a focus on biological diversity should — and, in this case, does — contain several chapters focusing on the ethnomedical knowledge of specific cultural groups and regions, including Chapter 4, “Ethnobotanical Uses of the Native Flora from Brazilian North-Eastern Region;” Chapter 6, “Ethnomedical Knowledge Among the ‘Quilombolas’ from the Amazon Region of Brazil With a Special Focus on Plants Used as Nervous System Tonics;” and Chapter 7, “Advances in the Knowledge of Medicinal Plants of Eastern Andulusia, Spain.”

To complement such classic ethnomedical chapters are several papers on state-of-the-art tools that can be utilized to enhance medicinal plant research and development, including Chapter 2, “Developing Better Herbal Medicines in The Post Genomic Era,” and the final chapter on countercurrent chromatography, “Strategies of Solvent System Selection for the Isolation of Natural Products by Countercurrent Chromatography.” These two chapters provide, as do all the chapters in this book, multiple pages of references. The book’s authors also provide many tables listing plant species, plant parts utilized, therapeutic activities, common names, and other data.

Unfortunately, the names of plant species are not linked to any specific voucher herbarium specimens, which is often the case in this type of publication. The book features very few photographs or illustrations, which is a pity, but also understandable given the already large size of the volume (688 pages). Only a few chapters contain chemical structures; one of them, Chapter 13, “Endophytes From Medicinal Plants as Novel Sources of Bioactive Compounds,” is a very thorough and well-presented paper on this fascinating source of new leads for drug discovery and development. I also was pleased to read Chapter 12, “Herbal Drugs Used for Domestic Animals,” as ethnoveterinary botanical medicine is a topic that is worthy of much more research around the world and was the subject of a CRC Press volume in 2010, Ethnoveterinary Botanical Medicine: Herbal Medicines for Animal Health.

The authors of the chapters in this book are from Latin America (especially Brazil and Mexico), Italy, India, Spain, Lebanon, Bangladesh, the United States, Germany, England, Saudi Arabia, and Australia. There are always limitations to the number of contributors and length of such a volume, but I found it a bit odd that there were virtually no contributions from scientific groups in Africa, much of Asia (with the exception of India and Bangladesh), or China. These excluded geographic areas have tremendous biological diversity; a deep, profound historical and current practice of traditional medicine; as well as highly skilled interdisciplinary research teams.

The authors do, however, represent a wonderful diversity of disciplines and research groups. These include pharmacy, botany, botanical gardens, integrative biology, biotechnology, molecular biology, nature conservation centers, sustainable futures, biodiversity genomics, pharmacology, chemistry, molecular pharmacology, biochemistry, natural products sciences, plant genetics, neurosciences, genetic engineering, and health sciences. The dynamic integration of these disciplines in this volume makes the book a valuable tool for a many different audiences. I would highly recommend it for people working on medicinal plant research in all of the above areas of study. The book would be ideal for universities, public health specialists, international development agencies, conservation groups focusing on medicinal plants, specialists in any of the therapeutic areas mentioned earlier, students, professors, policymakers, and anyone working on ethnomedical and ethnobotanical research.

—Steven King, PhD Senior Vice President Ethnobotanical Research, Sustainable Supply and Intellectual Property Napo Pharmaceuticals, Inc. San Francisco, CA