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Careful steps

Historically, ethnic knowledge bases have led to the discovery of several modern drugs. From quinine and aspirin to cancer-curing Vinca alkaloids or Taxols, the list is long

Arunabha Sengupta Published 10.06.24, 06:09 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. Sourced by the Telegraph

Two stories from the world of medicine-makers kept the mass media animated. One was the Supreme Court reprimanding Patanjali Ayurved for making unsubstantiated claims about its products. The other was the announcement by scientists associated with the Tata Memorial Hospital of having developed an anti-cancer tablet from natural products at a minimal cost. Incidentally, these medical products do not qualify as drugs approved by regulatory agencies but are stamped as ‘nutraceuticals’ that are easier to develop and market and enjoy some legal leeway. Often promoted as ‘functional food’ from natural or indigenous sources but prepared by modern factories with smart packaging, they occupy a large share of the global healthcare market.

The phenomenon has its pros and cons.


The pros include an enhanced interest of modern research institutes and pharmaceuticals in ethnopharmacology. Historically, ethnic knowledge bases have led to the discovery of many modern drugs. From quinine and aspirin to cancer-curing Vinca alkaloids or Taxols, the list is long. The old Indian or Asian practice of variolation or inoculation, refined and applied through modern vaccination programmes, successfully eradicated smallpox. After failing to formulate a drug against chloroquine-resistant malaria, Chinese researchers delved deep into their old texts, ultimately finding a source plant to prepare the potent anti-malarial Artemisinin.

Exercise caution

Now that laborious process is being replaced by ‘reverse pharmacology’ where molecular and genomic analysis first prefigures the chemical molecular configuration of the probable medicine and then AI-driven searches of huge databases try to find the probable plant or animal source. Computational chemistry and testing through computer models can also lead to the creation of combination drugs: the one hundred rupees anti-cancer tablet combines Resveratrol, a commercially available nutraceutical, with a certain dose of copper, which is claimed to generate free radicals capable of inactivating cell-free chromatin particles (cfChPs) released in the circulation by dying cancer cells. By attaching themselves to healthy host cells, these cfChPs start a cascading effect on the DNA of healthy host cells resulting in both increased toxicity following cancer therapy and in cancer spread. By stopping this cascading damaging effect, the researchers claim, “R-Cu can be a novel, cost-effective, and non-toxic agent which can be used for multiple disease conditions including cancer and metastasis prevention.”

Now the cons.

This mix of tradition and science can open up new vistas for opportunity seekers. Hoxsey Clinics, once the largest private sanatorium-cum-cancer hospital in the world, ran a profitable business selling a secret herb that a horse, it was claimed, had used to cure its own cancerous growth. Another preparation like Laetrile generated so much public craze that special senatorial committees had to be constituted before it could be banned in the US.

The nutraceutical industry, which is expected to be a 20-billion-dollar business in India by 2025, is still unregulated. That has prompted the government to set up a panel to shift nutraceuticals from the purview of food safety regulators to drug regulators. The announcement of the one-hundred-rupee cancer drug generated so much surprise among oncologists that Tata Memorial had to issue a clarification stating, “Effectiveness of copper plus Resveratrol, including its tablet formulation, in reducing treatment toxicity or increasing cures in cancer patients remains to be established and is currently under investigation.” There is value in new research in this direction but caution is still the byword.

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