Update of Herb Medicine Research

 Natural healingThere has been a serious investment in herbal medicine research by public-health bodies in many countries. China recently launched a safety research program focusing on herbal medicine injections from traditional Chinese medicine. South Africa recently included the need for investigating traditional medicines within its national drug policy.

In the USA, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health spent approximately US$ 33 million on herbal medicines in fiscal year 2005; in 2004 the National Cancer Institute committed nearly US$ 89 million to studying a range of traditional therapies. While this scale of investment pales in comparison to the total research and development expenses of the pharmaceutical industry, it nevertheless reflects genuine public, industry and governmental interest in this area.

While public-health entities may be concerned with defining the risks and benefits of herbal medicines already in use, entrepreneurs and corporations hope herbal medicines may yield immediate returns from herbal medicine sales, or yield clues to promising chemical compounds for future pharmaceutical development. They test individual herbs, or their components, analyzed in state-of-the-art high-throughput screening systems, hoping to isolate therapeutic phytochemicals or biologically active functional components. In 2006, Novartis reported that it would invest over US$ 100 million to investigate traditional medicine in Shanghai alone.

Nongovernmental organizations may be primarily interested in preserving indigenous medical knowledge. One such organization, the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Medicine (PROMETRA), based in Dakar, Senegal, is “dedicated to preserving and restoring African traditional medicine and indigenous science”. Governments in developing countries may want to use traditional herbal medicine research to expand the influence of their culture’s indigenous herbal practices in the global health-care market. For instance, Nigeria’s president recently established a national committee on traditional medicine with the expressed desire to boost Nigeria’s market share of traditional medicine. In developed countries, the “need” for this research may be to protect the public.

The perceived need for the research may justifiably differ across countries, but without some basic agreement on the primary source of social value for the research it may be difficult to judge its ultimate impact. In the Africa Flower case above, before agreements to study an herbal medicine are decided, partners must fully discuss potential differences about the perceived “need” for the research through public forums or structured debates. Based on these frank discussions, partners can assess whether the social values of partner countries are sufficiently compatible to warrant a research partnership.

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