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Stolen: Medicines from nature

Dr. Joanne Stolen

Legend has it that an Indian in the Amazon jungle was burning up with fever and thirst from malaria. He stopped to drink from a pond which was generally shunned for its bitter tasting water, but he was so thirsty he drank anyway. The bitterness was attributed to the Cinoncha trees which lined the pond. His fever soon abated and it was later learned that the bark of the tree had a substance which was a cure for malaria, later discovered to be quinine. Since 1992, research on natural anti-malarials has focused on Artemisian, a chemical from the species of plant by the name Artemesia which has been shown to reduce the availability of iron to the malarial parasite, with even greater efficacy than quinine. There are 25 different plant sub-species of the shrub Artemisia, and which have similar properties to quinine. Several compounds have been synthesized from the plant Artemisia annua, and are being used to treat severe malaria. Traditional spices, condiments and vegetables used around the world are also important sources of anti-tumor agents or possess antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-viral and anti-parasitic qualities. We use many natural ingredients for preservatives. Ancient Greek physicians recommended willow for alleviating pain and reducing fever and inflammation. In North America, probably even before the Greeks, the Alabama, Chickasaw, and Montagnai Indians used willow to relieve fevers, aches and pains. The beneficial effects of willow were also known to the Hottentots of southern Africa. Willow is the original source of aspirin. The flower foxglove contains digitalis in its leaves and is used for heart disease.Interestingly, animals also have the ability to self-medicate. A growing body of scientific evidence has been gathered in support of animal self-medication, or zoopharmacognosy. Starting with chance observations of a sick chimpanzee in 1987, a group of scientists are studying how chimpanzees in the wild deal with parasites and what their behavior can tell us about treating other diseases. Observers have noticed that some species ingest non-foods – such as toxic plants, clay or charcoal – to ward off parasitic infestation or poisoning. Jane Goodall has seen chimpanzees eating certain bushes to make themselves sick. Some Brazilian parrots eat kaolin (a form of clay). Apes have been observed selecting a particular part of a medicinal plant by taking off leaves, then breaking the stem to suck out the juice. Some of the compounds have been identified to kill parasitic worms, and some of these chemicals may be useful against tumors. A female capuchin monkey in captivity was observed using tools covered in a sugar-based syrup to groom her wounds and those of her infant. Capuchin monkeys in Venezuela were observed rubbing millipedes over their fur. It turned out that they were using the arthropod’s defensive secretions as an insect repellent. Wound licking is instinctively practiced by many animals and humans. Saliva contains anti-bacterial, anti-virals and growth factors.But not just the monkeys and great apes self-medicate. Finches in captivity of several different species have been observed to correctly target appropriate antibiotics – from a range made available to them – through which they were able to cure themselves of life-threatening diseases (as opposed to relatively minor ailments like indigestion.) These finches in captivity of several different species do not learn this self-medicative behavior from their parents or others in the flock through social learning, as apes and chimpanzees are suspected of doing. This ability of Estrildid finches seems to be innate, but how they can do it is a total mystery. Humans, the ancient Chinese, “witch” doctors, primitive man, and medicine men all knew about herbal medicinals. A lot of this knowledge is being lost with the disappearance and destruction of the natural habitat of some of these indigenous societies; as much of this knowledge was passed on by word of mouth or apprenticeship. There has been a resurgence of interest in the West in herbal medicinals. Many drug stores now carry herbal products. Pharmaceuticals send scientists out to remaining jungle areas communicate with indigenous peoples and to search for new drugs. There is no question that the templates for most drugs are in the natural world.Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.


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