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From Plants to Medicines: Bioactive Compounds from Plants.
by Derek J. Chadwick and Joan Marsh, eds. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 605 Third Ave., New York, NY 10158. 1990. 242 pp. Hardcover. $63.50. ISBN 0471-92691-4.

This collection of papers is the proceedings from a Symposium on Bioactive Compounds from Plants, held in Bangkok, Thailand, February 20-22, 1990. The Symposium was co-sponsored by the Ciba Foundation and the Chulabhorn Research Institute. This is the 285th symposium that Ciba Foundation has sponsored since its inception in 1947. The book represents number 154 in a series of Ciba Foundation symposium publications. The Chulabhorn Research Institute, located in Bangkok, is headed by HRH Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol of Thailand, a natural products scientist. Thirty participants from eleven countries participated in the symposium. A wide range of disciplines was represented.

The first three of the 16 published papers in the book are of greatest interest to most HerbalGram readers, and are themselves worth the purchase price of the book. The first paper, "The role of ethnopharmacology in drug development," was presented by Dr. Norman R. Farnsworth. Dr. Farnsworth argues the case for exploring the uses of plants by indigenous cultures as the most important and logical starting point for the potential development of new drugs from plants. Statistical data is provided on the global importance of drags from higher plants. A brief review of approaches to drag discovery using plants as starting materials is given, and problems related to interpreting ethnomedical data are discussed.

"Ethnobotany and the identification of therapeutic agents from the rainforest" is a fascinating paper by Dr. Michael Balick, Director of the New York Botanical Garden's Economic Botany Institute. The paper discuss the unstudied plants of the neotropics whose habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate. An ethnobotanical approach is again cited as the most logical starting point for new drug development investigations.

A related paper, and the third chapter of the book, "Ethnopharmacology and the search for new drugs," by Dr. Paul Alan Cox of Brigham Young University, describes his work on using ethnobotanical surveys of the Samoan flora for developing in vitro and in vivo targeted, rather than randomized screens for new drug development The author also discusses the ethics of ethnobotany and obligations of researchers to indigenous people.

While the first three chapters described above are of broad multidisciplinary interest, the remaining twelve chapters will be of primary interest to researchers in specialized chemical or pharmacological disciplines.

After each paper is a transcription of the discussion sessions that followed the presentation. These pages provide valuable insights into the processes and politics of the development of new drugs from plants. The frustration that ethnobotanists sometimes experience in dealing with chemists is revealed in the discussions following the lectures by Paul Cox and Michael Balick. Reading between the lines, one can sense close-minded attitudes of some researchers, who don't seem to understand the intrinsic wisdom of indigenous ethnobotanical data in targeted research strategies. Dr. Farnsworth's extemporaneous explanation of the evolution of the introduction of vincristine and vinblastine (alkaloids from the Madagascar periwinkle Catharanthus roseus) as chemotherapeutic agents serves as an excellent background sketch of the development of these drugs. In the same discussion, Gordon Cragg of the National Cancer Institute provides the best synopsis of the NCI's natural products screenin g program that I have seen.

Bioactive Compounds from Plants is a timely and valuable contribution to the medicinal plant literature that should be read by all with a serious interest in medicinal plant development.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.