Two articles in the latest issue of Cell are on the value of traditional medicines in modern drug discovery and organic chemistry. They focus on things like artemisinin, curcumin etc. and especially curcumin. The articles talk about efforts in India and abroad to harness the immunomodulatory and other powers of curcumin. Noteworthy is how an early patent on curcumin actually prevented its future therapeutic development:
"Even as publications on curcumin’s effects on cell lines and in animal models of disease increase dramatically, there are only 13 clinical trials underway worldwide. Part of the delay is attributable to a US patent, granted in 1995 to researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center for curcumin’s wound-healing properties, that prevented its development as a therapeutic. In a landmark case, the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) spent two years arguing and finally proving that curcumin has been part of the Indian traditional system of medicine for centuries and that this knowledge should be considered “prior art” and hence in the public domain. The patent was finally overturned in 1997."I will leave it for the patent pundits to opine on this one, but it seems to me that indiscriminately patenting trad meds can foreclose further development of their promising benefits. There is of course a point further down the line when patenting would be necessary.
The reports say that because curcumin is not patentable, there has been limited pharmaceutical interest until now, and only solid clinical data can pique their curiosity. The generation of such data seems to be looked into seriously now. One of the major problems with curcumin of course (looking at the structure) is its water insolubility. Some nanotechies are trying to get around this problem using polymer coated nanobeads.
Curcumin of course inhibits NF-kappaB and this has been validated. But NF-kappaB is everywhere! So I am skeptical of the number of cases where curcumin can actually take advantage of the window of safety that can be exploited. I of course eat curcumin almost everyday, but I haven't gotten my kappaB levels checked recently. Curcumin has also been implicated in interaction with COX-2. Thus, it has been binned to have potential anticancer and anti-Alzheimer's properties. In any case, even if I don't die from AD or cancer, I will die from something else. So it doesn't really matter. LPI has a long list of benefits and studies on curcumin. The Cell reports also say that curcumin may actually be inhibiting Ikß kinase and not NF-kappaB directly. But the versatility of curcumin also makes fine-tuning and probing its activity more difficult. That is where pharma with its myriad facilities, brains, and funding will have to come in.
But the reports are encouraging because they make it clear that Western interest in Eastern meds is seriously rising. After all, considering the number of drugs we have gotten from fungi, soil microorganisms, and marine sponges, this sign can only be a good omen.
We all live in a yellow submarine.
1. From Exotic Spice to Modern Drug?
Seema Singh doi:10.1016/j.cell.2007.08.035
2. Molecular Understanding and Modern Application of Traditional Medicines: Triumphs and Trials
Timothy W. Corson and Craig M. Crews