Natural drugs often overlooked, researcher tells NIH conference

Combinations of herbs can be effective in treating chronic pain

Doctors and medical researchers crowded into an auditorium at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently as Dr. David G.I. Kingston, a chemistry professor and researcher at Virginia Tech University, discussed his work.

And what might Dr. Kingston's work involve? Perhaps surprisingly, it's natural drugs and medicines, which Kingston says have been overlooked, especially for pain relief, for too long.

Kinston said greater use of natural products could help those suffering from chronic ailments and help with the side effects that are associated with undergoing harsh treatments, like chemotherapy.

Kingston discussed drug combinations like Iberogast, also known as STW5, which he said can help those suffering from severe stomach pain or heartburn when living with a chronic illness.

“It’s been used in Germany for years as a combination therapy,” he said.  “And six clinical trials demonstrated it was effective in relieving the symptoms of functional dyspepsia.”

Nine herbs

STW5 is made up of nine herbs and Kingston says each extract has a different effect on a particular symptom--and when the effects come together, natural products like Iberogast can be extremely effective in managing pain.

Kingston also said that anticancer drugs like etoposide, vincristine and teniposide are partially made of natural products, and in past studies it was learned that 61 percent of new drugs produced between 1981 and 2002 were derived from natural products, which proves that certain extracts can be effectively used as a medication.

The reason natural products have been useful in making certain medicines, is the many biologically active ingredients they produce, some so complex they can't be duplicated in a synthetic drug.

Kingston said the only way a natural ingredient can be used in prescription medicine is by isolating it, and when removing that ingredient from the plant or marine life’s other compounds, one could also be removing those other compounds treatment capabilities.

Kingston also explained that a combination of factors have kept the pharmaceutical companies from looking more into natural products as medicine, including the high cost associated with collecting samples, the challenges behind isolating the needed compound from the natural source, and being able to reproduce the substance in large quantities.

Combinatorial chemistry

But probably the main thing that has kept pharmaceutical companies from delving into natural products more, is because of a disproportionate focus on combinatorial chemistry, which is the technique of creating drugs by the aid of a computer.

However, researchers are learning that further attention should have been paid to natural products for medicine, and when combinatorial chemistry first became popularized, a lot of the research surrounding natural products took an abrupt back seat among many in the health community, but things are slowly starting to change, he said.

“The early years of combinatorial chemistry suffered from an excess of hype, and a major victim was natural-product screening,” wrote Dr. Kingston and his research team in a study. “Many organizations went through an irreversible shift in policy, and prematurely discontinued their efforts in this area. We are now seeing the backlash from this knee-jerk reaction.”

“The early combinatorial strategies were flawed and unproven, and have yet to deliver any blockbuster drugs," the research team wrote. "Meanwhile, we have lost the uniqueness of screening natural-product space as a complement to synthetic compounds. If past indicators are any guide, there are undoubtedly many more unique and potent biologically active natural products waiting to be discovered.”

Story provided by ConsumerAffairs.
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