A Humble PharmBoy Begins to Sow

OK, so I’m a latecomer to blogging.

I was also more than a week late for my own birth.

The blogging spark for me was an Aug 1 2005 article in The Scientist by David Secko. That’s where I first learned of Derek Lowe over at In The Pipeline…and GrrlScientist, Pharyngula, BotanicalGirl, and, YoungFemaleScientist, among others. Secko’s tagline was “Few scientists have caught onto the Internet’s power of posting, commenting, and debating – where are the rest?”

IMHO, pardon the pun, I’ve always been a rather humble scientist. So I first ran “natural products,” “pharmacology,” and “pharmacognosy” through Google Blogsearch and Blogger to be sure that there wasn’t already an authoritative voice on my main research areas. Until there is, I thought I could do a little something to promote my research field and dispel a lot of disinformation out there on naturally-derived therapeutic agents.

What I did find, however, is that this topic is generally represented in the blogosphere by one of two extremes. The study of natural products, or pharmacognosy, represents a branch of the pharmaceutical sciences, taught most often in colleges of pharmacy in a course of mentored didactic and laboratory work leading to a Ph.D. However, natural products are often lumped in, albeit incorrectly, with herbal medicines. Herbal or botanical medicines are considered by many to be “alternative medicine,” that polarizing term used to describe any agent or modality that is not commonly employed in mainstream medical practice.

The polarizing quality of alternative medicine among academic health and life scientists is exemplified by the other extreme in the blogosphere: hucksters using blogs to sell supplements, services, books, etc. with dubious and often irrational claims of cures while feeding the conspiracy theorists with the idea that cures are out there that “they” don’t want you to know.

There are few folks in the middle ground. Orac Knows at Respectful Insolence and Doctor Free-Ride at Adventures in Ethics and Science often take on alternative medical claims in a thoughtful, balanced, respectful manner that is based in fact. But what I see missing in many blog threads, however, is 1) a distinction between the relative validity of each of the alternative modalities and 2) an honest appreciation for what the natural world has lent to modern medicine, healthcare and wellness.

Herbal medicine is arguably the most conceptually accessible area of alternative medicine. A large number of prescription and the over-the-counter (OTC) drugs come from natural sources or are at least chemically-tinkered versions of the drug that occurs in nature. The cholesterol-lowering statins came originally from a fungus, the anticancer drug Taxol/paclitaxel came from the bark of a tree, and various antibiotics came from bacteria and fungi. The oddest case I have come across in my training and reading is that of the topical antibiotic, bacitracin, one of the components of Neosporin. (In fact, all three active components of Neosporin are natural products.) Bacitracin is produced from a bacterium originally cultured in the 1940s from the wound of a girl named Margaret Tracy (hence, the bacterium is called Bacillus subtilis var. Tracy I). I’ll go on about this general topic in subsequent posts.

However, herbal medicine, especially as practiced in the U.S., is a consumer nightmare.

Herbal medicines are rarely comprised of a single, well-defined chemical entity. Instead, they can consist of anything from ground-up plant parts to semi-pharmaceutical preparations of plant constituents concentrated many times more than occur naturally. Some of these agents are useless, while others do indeed have the potential for pharmacologic activity, both positive and negative.

The problem is that the U.S. treats this class of drugs as dietary supplements (and, yes, I consider them drugs as defined scientifically; interestingly, the word drug is derived from the French drogue meaning “dried goods” or “dried herbs.”). Laws regulating dietary supplements are considerably more relaxed than those that regulate prescription and OTC medicines. Yet, the consumer is often confused since herbal medicines are often sold side-by-side with OTC medicines. I hope to shed light on this confusion.

At the other end of the alternative medicine spectrum are practices like homeopathy. Homeopathic remedies are often made from many of the same plants used as herbal medicines, but they are diluted to the point that no medicinal constituents remain in the remedy. The concept flies in the face of traditional medicines where the principle is, “the greater the dose, the greater the effect.” Homeopaths hold that the greater the dilution of the remedy, the more potent it becomes. Interestingly, the U.S. government does regulate these agents as medicines, due in part to a quirk in legislation introduced by a 1920s N.Y. Senator (Royal Copeland) who was also a homeopath.

These are just two examples of alternative medicine that exemplify the polarization of the field and the difficulties in having a rational dialogue about the topic. Generalizations that “alternative medicine is bad” or that “prescription drugs are nasty chemicals” are not based in scientific fact. I hope to break through these generalizations and discuss alternative medicinal approaches on a case-by-case basis. My plan is to focus primarily on plant-derived medicines, but I will venture into discussions of all alternative therapies where I feel like I have something meaningful to contribute.

Welcome to Terra Sigillata – more on the blog name in the next post.

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