Friday, November 19, 2010

Dr. Andrew Weil: Why Plants Are (Usually) Better Than Drugs

I have always been fascinated by the difference between plants and the drugs that are isolated from them. This goes back to my student days at Harvard in the 1960s, where I received my undergraduate degree in botany, and then went on to medical school. It's rare, too rare, I have to say, for botanists to become doctors. The experience gave me a unique perspective on health and medicine.

For four decades, I've been skeptical of a prevailing belief in Western medicine: when a plant shows bioactivity in humans, we must attribute that effect to a single, predominant compound in the plant. We label that the "active principle," isolate it, synthesize it, and make a pharmaceutical out of it. Then, typically, we forget about the plant. We don't study any of the other compounds in it or their complex interactions.

This belief persists for two reasons. First, it makes research much easier. Single compounds can be manufactured in pure, standardized dosages, which simplifies clinical trials. (However, technology has largely solved this problem. Modern growing and processing methods make it possible to produce standardized, complex, whole plant based medicines. Clinical trials of these compounds have become quite sophisticated, especially in Europe.)

Second, and this is clearly the major reason, it makes drugs far more profitable for drug companies. Isolating and synthesizing a single molecule allows a drug company to patent that molecule. Making slight chemical modifications allows further patent potential. Such exclusivity can be worth billions, whereas a whole plant offers little opportunity for profit.

Read the entire article "Why Plants Are (Usually) Better Than Drugs"

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