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Plants That Save Lives: a Report from an International Symposium on Medicinal Plants

Volume 2 Number 3 - May 1994

Brooks Mullahy

The Morris Arboretum and the World Health Organization (WHO) co-sponsored an International Symposium on Medicinal Plants, April 19-21, 1993, in Philadelphia, U.S.A.. Sessions were held at the Arboretum, Temple University Conference Center, and The University Museum. The 139 participants, from 24 countries and 26 states in the United States, included plant science researchers, university scholars, government officials, and health-care experts.

Nobel Laureate, Baruch Blumberg, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, gave the keynote address "Plants to Medicines: Promise and Problem." Other speakers included Joseph Jacobs, director, Office of Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Michael Balick, director, Institute of Economic Botany, New York Botanical Garden, Dan Palevitch, director, Volcani Center, Israel, Robert McCaleb, president, Herb Research Foundation, and Olayiwola Akerele, former manager, Traditional Medicine Programme, WHO, now retired.

As symposium co-chair, Timothy Tomlinson, associate director of the Morris Arboretum, reminded the participants: "At a time when America is closely examining its own national health care system, the World Health Organization and its 182 member states are examining health care around the world, and in particular, the use of plants as medicine. Since 1978, international symposia on traditional medicine have been held in various countries around the world." Tomlinson told the assembly that the Philadelphia gathering of experts continued that tradition.

Most of the world's population depends upon traditional medicine for primary health-care using therapeutic practices that have been in existence, often for hundreds of years, before the development and spread of modern scientific medicine. Medicinal plants are critical to these health-care systems, and medical researchers around the world are turning increasingly to plants in the search for new and less expensive health-care solutions.

Nevertheless, a large number of plants in the world have not yet been studied for their medicinal properties, although they represent a rich potential health-care resource. Several symposium speakers warned that this potential may never be realized because of the increasing loss of biological diversity through over-exploitation and wasteful agricultural practices. The notions of conservation and preservation must extend both to plants and to traditional cultural practices and traditions that hold the secrets of ethnomedicinal uses of plants.

As a university garden, the Morris Arboretum continues a long tradition in the study and conservation of plant resources. Public gardens with scientifically documented living collections, such as the Morris Arboretum, provide critical germplasm resources as well as staff with expertise in the care and propagation of valuable plants. Today this research focus and expertise has stimulated new alliances between arboreta and botanic gardens on one hand and governments and private industry on the other. Over 100 pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. are now engaged in medicinal plant research; 25 national and multinational pharmaceutical firms were represented at the symposium.

In 1988, the Morris Arboretum began a collaborative project with SmithKline Beecham (SKB). Using state-of-the-art techniques, Arboretum staff investigate and report on the propagation and production of a potentially valuable medicinal plant, Camptotheca acuminata. SKB had been working for several years with this tree species, native to China, because it contains camptothecin, a chemical that has shown promise in the treatment of several cancers. The collaborative effort enables SKB staff to focus on pharmacological research while Arboretum staff work to ensure that production techniques are capable of producing sufficient Camptotheca biomass when it is needed.

A major symposium topic was the economics of medicinal plants. Olayiwola Akerele, a leading figure in the traditional medicine field for over a decade, stated: "The success of any health system depends on the ready availability and use of suitable drugs on a sustainable basis." He noted the need for responsible public policy to balance conservation and the sustainable exploitation of plant resources for the overall public good.

The participants recognized the potential role of arboreta and botanic gardens in balancing these interests, and acknowledged that such institutions could be at the centre of regional and national strategies. This role would be a reprise of the historical role of university arboreta.

According to Tomlinson, new relationships must be established, relationships that link university arboreta with pharmaceutical research interests, WHO programmes and policies, and government agencies in developed and developing countries.

He added: "The Morris Arboretum expects to play a leadership role in developing new relationships and building on the promise of the recent symposium. Discussions are now underway for regional arboreta in Nigeria and Zimbabwe that would promote the conservation and protection of indigenous plants, ensure the availability of improved species of medicinal plants with assured pharmacological content, develop a regional gene-pool to promote biodiversity, and promote the greening of urban centers in the region. We look upon the symposium as a beginning."

Proceedings of the symposium will be published in 1994 through the Morris Arboretum.

A Recommendation for Governments Around The World

WHEREAS plants have been the source of foods and medicines throughout history, and

Whereas traditional systems of medicine have employed medicinal plants for primary health care purposes, and

Whereas approximately 80% of the world's population is dependent upon traditional medicine for primary health care, and

Whereas modern scientific methods continually confirm the safety and efficacy of rational utilization of medicinal plants in diet and health care, and

Whereas the World Health Organization has published the "Guidelines for the Assessment of Herbal Medicines" to serve as a model for regulatory approval of herbal medicines by governments around the world, and

Whereas an increasing number of medicinal plants are being approved by governments in developed and developing countries for use in health care delivery systems, and

Whereas many traditional herbal medicines are relatively low in cost,

Therefore, we, the participants of this symposium recommend that

The "WHO Guidelines for the Assessment of Herbal Medicines" be adopted as a regulatory model by governments, with appropriate portions incorporated in government regulatory policies with regard to the assessment of the safety and efficacy of herbal medicines, and

That the inherent validity of all traditional systems of medicine be respected and conserved, and

That native plant habitats should be protected from exploitation or any practices that may threaten the future viability of plants and animals.

Symposium Highlights

Herbal Medicine -- One Answer to America's Health Care Crisis?

Dr Joseph Jacobs, Director of the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, concurred:"Clearly herbal medicines will have a role to play in health-care reform," he stated.

According to Robert McCaleb of the Herb Research Foundation: "Medicinal plants can offer lower cost medicines, important cash crops here and abroad, and new options for health care, if the current (regulatory) obstacles can be overcome."

Going... Going... Gone

At the rate that plant species and the native people who understand how to use them are disappearing, botanists may have only 15 years left, at most, to catalogue the properties and uses of medicinal rainforest plants, said Michael Balick, Director, Institute of Economic Botany, New York Botanical Garden.

"It is estimated that 1 in 125 plants thoroughly studied yields a major medicine, and ... we are losing plant species to extinction at the rate of about one per day.If these estimates are accurate, we are already losing three major medicines per year to extinction.Calculating the value of each of these medicines at $200 million per year in the U.S. alone, it becomes clear that forest resources are being seriously undervalued."said Robert McCaleb.

Preventive Medicine -- Are Plants the Key?

According to analysts, American medicine focuses primarily on treating diseases once they have occured."In over 50 years of FDA regulation of drugs, not a single preventive medicine has been approved for internal use for the prevention of any major disease," stated Robert McCaleb.

By contrast, other cultures, such as European and Japanese communities, have recognized the value of preventive practices and plant-based remedies. According to Mark Blumenthal, Executive Director of the American Botanical Council, "Due to labeling restrictions, the American public remains ignorant of the potential benefits of many herbal products sold in the U.S."