Gertsch Group

Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, University of Bern, Switzerland

About natural products in Mexico

About natural products in Mexico
Jurg Gertsch - Mon Sep 07, 2009 @ 07:00AM
Comments: 2

During a meeting in Xalapa (Veracruz) Mexico about the importance of the Mexican Herbolaria in tradition and pharmaceutical development I realized that medicinal plants are much more than a source for bioactive natural products. They are meaning and inducers of a "placebo effect" at the same time. Maybe it is wrong to only look for potent bioactive secondary metabolites in all the medicinal plants as many if not most of them are simply the medium (meaning) of the healing ceremony. The healing itself is the means to trigger a beneficial physiological effect (the very same placebo effect). Thus, while such plants don't contain anything but common or ineffective secondary metabolites, they are given a meaning witin a traditional medical system. As studied by the linguist and anthropologist Carlos Zolla, who fortunately was also present at this meeting, Mexico has probably one of the richest herbalist traditions, a rather colorful syncretism of shamanism, spiritual healing and pharmacology, reflecting numerous ethnic groups and hundreds of years of integrating meaning into healing. Religion, magic and pharmacology in a unique fogging potpourri a la mexiana. OK, what about the pharmacologically potent natural products already found in Mexico? Are they not good proof that there must be more to be discovered? There is no doubt that Mexico is a country rich in bioactive natural products, some of which have in factchanged the world. The potent hallucinogenics mescaline, psilocybine, lysergic acid, and salvinorin A are of Mexican origin. Capsaicin from chilli (Capsicum annuum L.) is the prototype alkaloid leading the way down to the endovanilloid system. Theobromine and trace caffeine from cacao (Theobroma cacao L.), which has played a major role in pre-columbian Mexico, are important recreational alkaloids. Diosgenin from a Mexican plant genus (Dioscorea spp.) was used by the company Sintex to produce semisynthetically the first anticonceptives. But out of the almost 4000 medicinal plants used in Mexico only very few (less than 20) have "made history" and changed the world. 0.5% success rate wouldn't be a bad number. Given the existing200'000 higher plants this would mean that there should be around 1000 plants with interesting pharmacologically highly potent compounds in the world. Approximately 200 we have founa already. But maybe this is too optimistic. One thing is for sure, the Mexican Herbolaria can easily compete with TCM in China, only that the Mexicans are not as good at making persuasive claims and patents (homo economicus versus homo ignavus). Currently, there is almost no pharmaceutical industry in Mexico - the local products are being sold at a very small scale, there is almost no quality control. This situation is not sufficient as economically sound basis to create new jobs in the industry of phytomedicines or monosubstances. And new jobs are urgently needed in rural Mexico. It's probably about finding another taxol that makes the run. Mexico has everything, the biodiversity and the cultural traditions. But then we don't want to sell water for wine and stone for gold - in chemistry and pharmacology we want the really bioactive compounds with reproducible effects. One just has to try harder and to look better, to be much more critical. Anyway, I will never forget the privat lecture in that hotel room by Carlos Zolla about "el susto y el mal del ojo", los Mariachis playing music outside at some wedding, the magic of a very late evening in a magical place at the foot of the Pico de Orizaba, wonderful snow-covered mountain in the middle of the tropics ...

Comments: 2


1. Peter Taylor   |   Tue Sep 08, 2009 @ 05:36AM

Once upon a time in a far off galaxy, there was a planet with one very large and powerful computer. This computer was shared by the 6 smartest people on the planet who were allowed to use their computer time to do anything that occurred to them. However, the governing committee became a little worried when they found that one of the superbrains appeared to spend his time feeding jokes into the computer. When asked, he said the idea was to see if the computer could determine the meaning of humour. What is humour? Why are jokes funny? What makes a good joke? The committee thought this was an interesting question but perhaps a misuse of computer time. Anyway, precisely at that moment, the computer came up with an answer. Humour makes no sense, it said; the only conclusion possible is that the race and the whole question of humour was part of a psychology experiment by superior beings, to see the effect of “humour” on human lab rats. So what happens when psychology lab rats understand the experiment, are able to see what is being investigated? Obviously the researcher has to abandon the experiment, as the results are no longer meaningful. So while the committee and the superbrain were sitting round contemplating the implications, it occurred to the superbrain to tell a joke, then another, then another. Nobody laughed……………….
Discuss the implications of this old science fiction story for medical treatment which relies on the placebo effect. 10,000 words on my desk by Monday morning.

2. Jürg Gertsch   |   Sat Sep 12, 2009 @ 06:38AM

I believe that the placebo effect, or as Dan Moerman would call it "the meaning response" is an evolutionary conserved system (remember, the placebo works in different animals too). Therefore, we will always find something to believe in which makes us fit - some believe in molecular medicine, others in spiritual healing, some perform yoga, others pray. If I know that a particular medicine does not work (in my case homeopathy), it will automatically be less effective (less funny the joke in your analogy). However, dear Peter, I strongly believe that there is an underlying biochemistry for the placebo effect - THIS is what we should study and this would be my dream project in science - maybe we can then invent a pill that induces the placebo effect directly - in your analogy, the ethanol that makes some people laugh about things that are not funny at all ... satisfied?

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