1 January 2007

Antiquarian Herbal Book Yields Potential New Drugs

by Kate Melville

An unusual collaboration between Mayo Clinic researchers and a shamanistic healer from the Pacific nation of Samoa has yielded up a potential new treatment for the bacteria that can cause diarrhea. The researchers were first made aware of the possible therapeutic applications of the South Sea plant extract after applying modern data-mining techniques to the book Ambonese Herbal, written by the naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumpf in 1650.

Writing in The British Medical Journal, the researchers claim that their discovery validates the feasibility of using data mining techniques on historical texts to identify new drugs. "Natural products are invaluable sources of healing agents - consider, for example, that aspirin derived originally from willow bark, and the molecular basis of the anti-cancer chemotherapeutic agent TaxolTM was derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. So it's not so far-fetched to think that the contributions of an ancient text and insights from traditional medicine really may impact modern public health," explains Brent Bauer, of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program.

The antiquarian book is an account of the herbal healing traditions on the Indonesian island of Ambon. Rumphius' description of Atun kernels' therapeutic properties is what modern medicine calls "antimotility agents," they stop diarrhea. Writes Rumphius; "these same kernels... will halt all kinds of diarrhea, but very suddenly, forcefully and powerfully, so that one should use them with care in dysentery cases, because that illness or affliction should not be halted too quickly; and some considered this medicament a great secret, and relied on it completely."

The unusual research team who worked on the discovery included a shamanistic healer from the Independent State of Samoa, ethnobotanists from Hawaii who validated the correct botanical specimens, a New York botanist who reconciled ancient plant names with modern plant names and database experts from Chicago.

"For thousands of years, people around the world have lived intimately with botanical healing agents and evolved effective healing traditions. Our work shows just how much we can learn from them. But to make the most of what is fast becoming lost knowledge, we have to respect, preserve and work with traditional healing cultures," concluded co-researcher Eric Buenz.

Source: Mayo Clinic