There are numerous plants on the planet that have a long history of use in traditional medicine. In fact, there are many societies in the world where the predominant mode of maintenance of health and well-being is through the administration of herbs and aliments to cure disease conditions. There are a number of well-known examples of drugs in current clinical use that had their beginnings as natural products isolated from plant or microbial sources. Examples include the antibiotic penicillin (isolated from molds of the genus Penicillium), the anticancer drug taxol (isolated from the Pacific Yew tree), and the analgesic acetyl salicylic acid (or aspirin), a derivative of salicylic acid isolated from the willow tree). In principle, there are two general ways in which plants that may have biological activity can be chosen for study. Plants can be randomly selected and subjected to a series of biological assays to determine their potential biological activity, or they can chosen based upon a history of use against a particular ailment in a society or culture. A disadvantage of the first approach is that selected plants, although demonstrating efficacy in a particular biological assay, may ultimately be found to be highly toxic. This issue is, to a certain extent, circumvented in the second approach, in that the toxicology of the herb is generally know. Put simply, herbs that kill on ingestion are likely not used in traditional medicine, and those that have a long and consistent history of use against a particular ailment have a higher probability of working (otherwise, there would be no continued use).

We have launched a program to study natural products derived from various plants and food crops that have been used to treat disease in some cultures of the world. Thus, plants that have a history of use in traditional medicine are subjected to bioassays to determine the active component, or combination of active components responsible for the manifested therapeutic effects. Plants that we are examining in this way include Croton lechleri which produces a red sap known as known as ‘dragon’s blood’, Uncaria tomentosa (also known as cat’s claw), and beta vulgaris (table beets).

Dragons’ blood is a viscous tree sap that is used extensively by the indigenous cultures of the Amazon River basin for its remarkable haling properties. When applied to the skin for abrasions, cuts scratches, blisters, bites and stings, Dragon’s blood forms a long-standing barrier possibly due to its ability to coprecipitate with proteins or other matrix elements. In doing so it is claimed to foster accelerated wound healing and does so with reduced pain, inflammation and scarring. We have found in our work that Dragon’s blood confers benefit by suppressing the activation of sensory afferent nerve mechanisms, which supports its ethnomedical use for disorders characterized by neurogenic inflammation.

Cat’s claw is a vine that grows in the Peruvian Amazon and has been used in traditional medicine to alleviate inflammation. Ethnomedically, the bark and root of cat’s claw are the parts of the plant that are most frequently used, and are prepared as an aqueous extraction in hot water. Several groups have reported a wide range of chemical substituents in cat’s claw, although few studies have demonstrated that administration of these isolated components exerts consistent anti-inflammatory effects. Of the compounds that have been isolated, the most well known are the oxindole alkaloids. Based on in vitro experiments, it has been indicated that oxindole alkaloids promote phagocytosis, leading to the claim that cat’s claw has immunostimulant properties, and also the ability to induce a lymphocyte-proliferation-regulating factor in endothelial cells. However, these actions are difficult to reconcile with the use of cat’s claw to treat chronic inflammation. Hence, we have continued our efforts to evaluate alternatives explanations for the mechanisms of action of cat’s claw. In our own studies, we have found that cat’s claw exhibits potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity that is independent of the oxindole content of the plant sample.

There is anecdotal evidence that components of table beets may have anticancer activity. We have initiated a bioassay guided fractionation study to determine if there is scientific support for this.


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