Holiday is always a good time for slowing down a busy brain, reset the mind and let some new ideas come up. Science, mainly biology, physics and chemistry, is always my primary interest, much more than sport to be honest. I remember as a boy being an enthousiastic member of The Young Researchers Foundation, organized by university students, who practiced teaching chemistry, physics and technology to kids. This foundation still exists.
Although I was, like many boys of that age, fascinated by rockets, explosions and smells (once I made the whole neighborhood smell like pineapple: I synthesized ethyl-butyrate), I also learned e.g. paper and column chromatography.
Hiking in the mountains not only makes you feel small and irrelevant, but it also makes me wonder still about the true marvels of nature and human’s futile attempts to improve nature.
Let me give you a simple example. In an attempt to improve human health or to combat disease the immense pharmaceutical industry is trying to find solutions for common or rare, for acute or chronic diseases. The cost of these, in terms of financial costs, but also of human suffering by side effects, or experimental medication that doesn’t work like it was anticipated, is beyond belief.
Herbal medicine has been consciously neglected too long. Conveniently forgetting that herbal medicine is the mother of pharmacology, medical science and pharmacology went the easy way by becoming more and more specialized in looking for isolating and changing natural products. (Only recently again, science “discovered” the importance and the power of synergy of plant compounds)
For some part, isolation and modifying a natural molecule is done to improve the qualities of the compound, (better absorption, stronger effect, less side effects) but the main reason is: being able to patent a „new“ compound, thereby having “improved” on nature and most importantly, generating absurd levels of profit for the shareholders. Yes, human health has become commodity to be exploited and look around, it works out really well.
In my opinion it is hard, if of not impossible to improve on nature, not in an esoteric sense, but from a scientific point of view. Think about the many thousandof different plant metabolites that exist and of which only a small portion has been discovered and tested. One of the big problems of modern medicine is the resistance of bacteria against modern synthetic antibiotics, think MRSA (modern antibiotics basically started in the 1940’s with the discovery of penicillin).
Now think of plants being involved in a chemical warfare with bacteria, fungi, viruses, insects, and other pests and threats. Have you ever thought why these plants, or better said most plants, are not extinct yet despite these continuous attacks? Simply because plants, through evolution, developed their own well stocked cabinet of antibiotics as a defense system to protect themselves. And better yet: throughout the hundreds of thousands of years, bacterial resistance against these compounds does not seem to play a role. For bacteria it is easy to develop resistance against one singular, isolated, synthetic compound, but not against many diffrent plant compounds since the resistance process is specific and costs a lot of energy.
To be fair, a plant has the advantage of having had hundreds of thousands of years of hard and serious experimentation under lethal pressure: synthesize the right compounds against an attacker, or become extinct!
The vegetable part of Mother Nature supplies us with lots of goodies, apart form our daily nutrition. We often take most of them for granted because they are so integrated in our daily life. A short list: tea, coffee, beer, wine, tobacco, cannabis, opium, cocaine, etc. All of these are derived from plants and used to enrich the daily lives of billions of people on this planet. Or are used because we disagree with the current status of our organism and so we use chemical, although natural, substances like the above to change that. It has always been there from the beginning of mankind and a known phenomenon in all human cultures.
These plant compounds also cause the confusion that makes it hard to define the difference between a poison, a social drug, a street drug, a medication or a doping agent. The same compound can belong to different groups, dependent of time and cultural factors. Just think about the different ways one can look at coffee. This whole issue is surrounded with a high level of irrationality.
Going back to hiking in the mountains. In the first hour of a hike I found some interesting plants. First of all, the Aconitum napellus of Monkshood, amongst the three strongest plant toxins in Europe. It was already mentioned by the Roman writer Ovid, who called it “stepmother’s poison”.(1) Also Shakespeare wrote that Romeo committed suicide by using this poison. And let’s not forget professor Severius Snape, who informed Harry Potter about the powerful Wolfsbane Potion, containing Monkshood.(2)
During the same hike many potential compounds against cancer were found along the trails. A few:
– Chelidonium majus, used against cancer in the anticancer product product „Ukrain“, main component chelerythrine (3,4)
– Berberis vulgaris, the main component berberine, (5) good as an alternative to lower cholesterol instead of statins too (6)
– Chamomille main component apigenin (7,8)
– Dandelion (Yes the simple and abundant dandelion!) (9,10)
We already know that compounds in these plants do work on cancer cells in the lab. But since there is no money to be made from these compounds, as they can be found everywhere. The research and testing on human subjects and patients would cost way more money than would ever return from making a therapeutic product out of it. So many valuable compounds are produced along the side of the road or are growing in your own garden, without people bothering to use them. This what we call progress.
But billions of dollars have been spent (since Richard Nixon declared the “War on Cancer” in 1971) and thousands of intelligent experts and researchers have been thinking about and looking in vain for a final solution for cancer. Some simple conclusions can be drawn: 1.until now their thinking was inadequate, 2. they have been looking at the wrong issues 3. they have been looking at the right issues but from he wrong perspective. Three easy solutions: think in a different way, look at other issues and/or look from another perspective.
Maybe part of a solution has been around for a long time, waiting to be finally discovered, hidden deep in the metabolism of some plants? The example is here, in 2015 Youyou Tu won the Nobelprize for Medicine (the first Nobelprize for a Chinese scientist) for the research she did on Artemisia, a plant used to combat malaria, knowing that Artemisia already has been used in China for many hunderds of years against fever.
1 Tai, C.J; El-Shazly, M: Clinical Aspects of Aconitum Preparations; Planta Med. Vol.81, 2015, pg.1017–1028.
2 Rowling J.K. Harry Potter and the philosopherʼs stone; Pottermore, London, 2012.
3 Malíková J, Zdarilová A, Hlobilková A, Ulrichová J: The effect of chelerythrine on cell growth, apoptosis, and cell cycle in human normal and cancer cells in comparison with sanguinarine. Cell Biol Toxicol. Vol.22, No.6, 2006 pg.439-53.
4 Ernst, E; Schmidt, K: Ukrain – a new cancer cure? A systematic review of randomised clinical trials; BMC Cancer, 5, 2005, 69
5 Tillhon,M; Guama´n Ortiz, L.M; Lombardi, P, Ivana Scovassi, A: Berberine: New perspectives for old remedies; Biochemical Pharmacology,Vol. 84, 2012, pg. 1260–1267.
6 Weijia Kong, Jing Wei, Parveen Abidi, Meihong Lin: Berberine is a novel cholesterol-lowering drug working through a unique mechanism distinct from statins; Nature Medicine, Vol 10, No.12, 2004, pg.1344-1351.
7 Srivastava, J.K; Gupta, S: Antiproliferative and Apoptotic Effects of Chamomile Extract in Various Human Cancer Cells; J. Agric. Food Chem. Vol.55, No.23, 2007, pg.9470–9478
8 Zhu, Y; Mao,Y :A pigenin promotes apoptosis, inhibits invasion and induces cell cycle arrest of T24 human bladder cancer cells; Cancer Cell International 2013, 13:54,pg.1-7.
9 Ovadje, P; Ammar, S; Guerrero, J-A; Arnason,J.T; Pandey, S: Dandelion root extract affects colorectal cancer proliferation and survival through the activation of multiple death signalling pathways; Oncotarget, Vol. 7, No. 45, 2016, pg.73080-73100.
10 Sigstedt S.C; Hooten, C.J; Callewaert M.C: Evaluation of aqueous extracts of Taraxacum officinale on growth and invasion of breast and prostate cancer cells; Int.J.Oncology, Vol.32, 2008, pg.1085-1090,