Research presented to the British Pharmaceutical Conference today, confirms the benefits of commonly used traditional remedies for a range of illnesses, including cancer, offering a scientific justification for their use.
The data, reported to the Conference by researchers from the Department of Pharmacy, King’s College London, shows the real benefits of a range of traditional treatments including: Indian diabetes treatments; Ghanaian wound healing agents; and cancer treatments used in the Far East. The findings will help local people identify which plants to recommend and may lead to potential new compounds for pharmaceutical use.
The Curry tree that helps diabetes
The curry-leaf tree (Murraya koenigii) from India, is one of the traditional Indian plants with reputed benefit in diabetes. Katie Bawden-Tucknott and colleagues have been investigating several of these plants and, they say, the data clearly shows the plant to have potential antidiabetic activity.
The researchers have developed a test for antidiabetic activity based on inhibition of a digestive enzyme (pancreatic alpha-amylase). This enzyme is involved in the breakdown of dietary starch to glucose. A patient with diabetes does not produce enough insulin to cope with rapid rises in blood glucose levels. Slowing the rate of starch breakdown, by blocking alpha-amylase, can lead to a more even trickle of glucose into the bloodstream from the intestine. Professor Peter Houghton, head of the King’s College research team, describes this as “like restricting people coming out of a station gate in the rush hour so that they come out one at a time rather than seven at a time.”
Extracts from the curry-leaf tree showed significant enzyme inhibition. The researchers are now looking to identify the specific active compounds.
Once the active component has been isolated and characterised it should be possible to evaluate whether the agent is likely to have advantages – in terms of efficacy or side effects – over currently marketed antidiabetic drugs that interfere with starch digestion.
Wound healing agent in Ghanaian plant
The wound healing work is a joint project between researchers from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana, and King’s College London. They are investigating the properties of some plants used by the Ashantis, one of the largest ethnic groups in Ghana.
The researchers interviewed traditional healers to identify plants that are used to help wound healing. They then tested the plants to see whether there is scientific justification for this use.
They reported their investigation of Commelina diffusa, also known as climbing dayflower. An extract of the plant was shown to have both antibacterial and antifungal activity.
Professor Houghton commented: “This activity indicates that the plant is useful in helping wounds to heal and stopping them getting infected.”
Far Eastern plants are possible anticancer agents
Plants used in Thai traditional medicine and in Chinese traditional medicine for treatment of cancer do appear to have anticancer activity.
Plants from both countries were studied in research projects at King’s College London. The plant materials were extracted, according to the methods used traditionally. Their in vitro activity in inhibiting growth of cancer cells (a measure of potential therapeutic use) and normal cells (a measure of potential toxicity) was then assessed using a specific test called the sulforhodamine B assay.
For both sets of plants, some promising activity was seen against lung cancer cells. With the Thai plants, the best results were found with Ammannia baccifera, an aquatic weed. Work is now under way isolate and purify the active compounds present in the plant.
The most promising of the Chinese products was the plant Illicium verum (star anise).