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Can medicinal plants substitute pharmaceutical drugs?

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Felix Krengel Aug 31, 2020
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Are medicinal plants and their derivatives a serious alternative to pharmaceutical drugs? If yes, how should their production and use be regulated in order to make them available to everybody? How would different regulatory systems impact global health care?

Many people believe that using “natural” remedies, such as dried plant material or herbal preparations (e. g. organic extracts), is a generally safer, more gentle, and more sustainable way to treat medical conditions than relying on the products of the pharmaceutical industry. But is that really true? Let’s consider the facts:

  1. The pharmaceutical complex is a billion-dollar industry whose main interest is to make profit and not necessarily to provide every inhabitant of the world with cheap and effective drugs.
  2. From a commercial point of view, it may be more reasonable to develop drugs that control the symptoms of a medical condition, and thus have to be taken (and bought) over a period of many years, than to aim for a cure. This is particularly true when considering the high costs associated with the development of new prescription drugs.
  3. In consequence, many important pharmaceutical drugs are too expensive to really be available to everyone who needs them, especially in developing countries and remote regions.
  4. Medicinal plants have been used by humankind for millennia to treat medical conditions and are an alternative to pharmaceutical products. Cordell (2015) estimates that 6.5 billion persons are using herbal preparations in one form or another, and that as much as 80% of inhabitants of developing countries rely principally on medicinal plants in order to cover their basic health needs!
  5. In contrast to pharmaceutical drugs, herbal preparations can be obtained and produced at a much lower cost, but there are several drawbacks, such as limited mass production, difficult quality control and standardization between batches, as well as the lack of research regarding the establishment of production and administration protocols that guarantee a consistent measurable health effect.
  6. Additionally, herbal preparations tend to consist of a combination of active compounds instead of a single one. In the best case, this may have beneficial synergistic effects, but in the worst case, some substances may have toxic side effects. Herbal remedies are usually not required to undergo rigorous safety testing in a similar manner as pharmaceutical drugs are. Hence, harmful properties may go unnoticed.

So what’s your opinion on this matter? Do medicinal plants have the potential to substitute pharmaceutical drugs? Or are they only an alternative on a regional or local scale? Do you think herbal preparations are more or less safe/efficient/sustainable/toxic/dangerous/reliable/etc. than the latter? And how do plants compare to drugs when the aim is to prevent rather than treat diseases? How could a plant-based health care approach look like in comparison with the current health care system? Let’s discuss this controversial topic with an open mind considering only the facts!

Creative contributions

Local "pharmers" theory

jnikola Aug 31, 2020
Great topic! As a molecular biologist/medical chemist, I find it very intriguing to hear what people have to say about the so-called "untapped potential of herbs". I will share my thoughts. Team Pharma We often forget that the pharma industry is not a local farm gone big. It is a strictly regulated, highly competitive business that needs to obey the business rules. The first golden rule is that profit matters. For pharma, money means patent, and the patent requires an invention to be something specific and novel - patentable. In nature, most of the compounds don’t act as single agents and therefore, are not patentable. Because it costs money to make money, non-patentable products are, in the current market, considered as an investment “black holes”. It is not always about profit and getting rid of the symptoms and the symptoms only. Sometimes it’s just how business work. (I don't defend pharma companies, I just don't blame them.) Team Herbals It is questionless that herbal preparations have the potential to substitute some of the pharmaceutical drugs. For five years, I have been researching local plant extracts and their cytotoxic effects on tumor cells and I would say that the mentioned problems concerning quality and standardization are technicalities that can be solved by brainstorming, what people love to do. They just need a good motivation and a regulatory body that will give them a niche to work in. Another big problem is that new regulatory requirements, allowing plant-based extracts to enter the big market, are being carefully (read slowly) implemented (1). Because of that, it could easily happen that the pharma industry will not be the driver of the change, but small local farmers and their “natural domestic products”. Among varieties of fruits and vegetables, we can already see many oils, drops, and balsams showing up on domestic product fairs. It is just a matter of time when the labels will start to contain the information about the composition, listing all the specific compounds we were using for years! So, I give my vote to local farmers becoming local "pharmers" and saving the world. Hey, if Uber found a way how to make the transportation cheaper, we can do it with drugs, too. References: (1) https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/the-great-untapped-potential-of-herbal-medicines
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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni4 years ago
Very aptly put, Juran K. !
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Felix Krengel4 years ago
I agree that some sort of regulation and standardization is probably the key to establishing herbal preparations as a serious alternative to pharmaceutical drugs. However, we should avoid copying the current patent-based regulatory system for medicines that excludes a large part of the world's inhabitants from healthcare. Instead, universal access to the latter should be the primary focus.
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jnikola4 years ago
Yes, I agree. If it was possible with food products (to some extent), it shouldn't be much different in the case of herbal preparations. Setting the quality threshold and enabling universal access.
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let's copy the vegan food strategy

Martina Pesce
Martina Pesce Dec 17, 2020
Other people have already covered the topic of how awesome medicinal plants and their derivatives are, so I won't focus on that.

How do we get this to the market?

I remember vegan food being inexistent in supermarkets, I remember it making some shy appearance at crazy prices on the shelves of some very fancy shops, I remember restaurants starting to give vegan options, I remember all my friends starting to become vegan, I know now it's hard to find a room in Berlin if you are not vegan.
Same with biological food. If there is a good period in which everyone dislikes big pharma and the "profit better than quality " motto, it's probably now. Maybe it's indeed time these products try to make their way in the market. Also, as @Juran proposed, I believe local pharmers would be the most suitable figures for such a move.
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Herbs don't treat, they heal your body

Kritika Bansal Nov 11, 2020
Plants are a warehouse of antioxidants that make them "medicinal". These antioxidants have been demonstrated to be effective against severe diseases including cancer, Alzheimer's, cardiovascular diseases and artheroscleorosis. These herbal medications work in a holistic way meaning that their "effective compound" is not one active compound or some part but rather a complex of substances in the whole herb that act synergistically. The synergism and the safety of herbal medicines over conventional pharmaceutical drugs have been shown in case of arthritis where conventional steroidal anti-inflammatories have triggered various side -effects while the herbal tretament manifested itself by stimualating circulation in the affected area, moistening of the synovial fluid that dries up in arthritis, changes in the metabolism etc .

Whats most interesting is the fact that herbalists believe that these medicinal plants are agonists for the modern drugs and the role of these herbs is to help the body recover over all so that the drugs can perform their role .

Considering this, more research and brainstorming on this friendly relation between herbal medicines and drugs can open doors to effective treatments till not known to humankind.

[1]Karimi A, Majlesi M, Rafieian-Kopaei M. Herbal versus synthetic drugs; beliefs and facts. J Nephropharmacol. 2015;4(1):27-30. Published 2015 Jan 1.

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Very well, to an extent

Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni Nov 12, 2020
Ayurvedic medicine is plant-based and has little to no side-effects when taken in appropriate doses. It prepares your body to fight infections and maintain the right balance of hormones. It is person-specific, not generalized, and hence, more effective and long-lasting.

Downsides include the need to take multiple doses (a therapy) to have the desired effect. It is not as effective as some pharmaceutical drugs in the emergency room. An epinephrine shot can save a life. I don't think any plant-based medicine can do that. However, regular plant-based medicines may prepare your body better and limit the necessity of an epinephrine shot.


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