Kolkata: The Nobel Prize for Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, who turned to traditional herbal medicine to develop novel malaria therapies, should inspire India to focus on scientifically validating and promoting its rich heritage of folk medicine, an expert said on Thursday.
"We have a vast repertoire of traditional medicine and these are documented in our ancient texts such as the Vedas. But we have to embrace modern science and validate the claims with hard scientific evidence. The Nobel for Tu is well deserved and should encourage India to back traditional knowledge with hard scientific data," G. Padmanaban, former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, told IANS.
One half of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites.
The other half was awarded to Tu for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against malaria.
Tu developed anti-malarial drug artemisinin in the late 1960s and 1970s. Artemisinin is the active constituent of the plant Artemisia annua.
As an example, Padmanaban, the senior science and innovation advisor at the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), Department of Biotechnology, pointed out the case of popular Indian spice turmeric and its active principal curcumin.
In Ayurveda, turmeric has wide uses such as to treat flatulence, dyspepsia, liver disorders (jaundice in particular), common cold etc.
Padmanabhan and his team (in collaboration with the National Institute of Immunology) have been working on a curcumin-artemisinin combination and have found it to be effective against cerebral malaria.
"We have been working with curcumin as an adjunct drug with arteether (a semi-synthetic derivative of artemisinin) in animal models," he said, stressing that curcumin was "an ideal adjunct drug to prevent and treat cerebral malaria".
Further, Padmanaban claimed that use of curcumin has yielded "excellent results" in terms of preventing parasite recrudescence (patients coming back a few weeks after primary therapy).
In addition, he said, it can also check emergence of resistance to artemisinin, since it can lower the toxicity and dosage of the primary drug.
Despite curcumin's potential, Padmanaban lamented that it has not been an approved drug even for a single ailment.
"Multinational pharmaceutical companies will not be interested since it is cheap and easily patentable. The best option would be to carry out clinical trials with curcumin as an adjunct therapy with the existing drugs and if it could be promote as a molecule for treating specific diseases," said Padmanaban.
While the researchers are awaiting the Drug Controller General of India's nod to conduct efficacy trials in cerebral malaria patients, pre-clinical toxicity studies and Phase I safety studies in normal human volunteers have been completed, said Padmanaban.
Suggesting the way forward, he added: "The mortality rate in cerebral malaria is pretty high (15-25 percent) despite artemisinin therapy and an adjunct drug is desperately needed."