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“There is no question that the templates for most drugs are in the natural world.” —Eloy Rodriguez
Treatment products are marketed through their active ingredients, with two basic approaches. The high-tech approach centers on chemicals and biochemical pathways that presume clearly defined mechanisms for maintenance and repair. The second approach is the traditional, herbal or folkloric path that uses natural products or chemicals extracted from naturals, and relies heavily on historical usage and anecdotal reports. The two approaches are not as far apart as one might think.
Products positioned as scientific are often backed by data that falls considerably short of peer-reviewed standards. Folkloric remedies sometimes, but not always, have a valid basis, and can be as good, sometimes better, than any clinically based cure. Alas, there is a catch-22 system in place that makes it impossible for even the best traditional therapy to become officially adopted as formal medical treatment, although the problem hardly casts aspersions on their efficacy.
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For U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in terms of drugs and not cosmetics, a full dossier of testing must be submitted at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. To justify the expense, the testing must result in a patentable product so financial rewards are assured. But traditional treatment methods are in the public domain, and are not patentable. Thus, the required testing is not economically viable, and FDA approval will not be issued. So the traditional methods will unlikely be given an official seal of approval, but that does not compromise their real utility in personal care products.
Digitalis is the poster child of a drug derived from a plant formerly used by folklorists and herbalists, and William Withering transitioned foxglove, the source for digitalis, into the realm of mainstream medicine in 1775. Its cardiac benefits are now known to result from inhibiting sodium-potassium ATPase. And the modern practice of deriving drugs from natural sources and the industry built upon this practice remains strong: 61% of drugs introduced globally from 1981 to 2002 can be traced to or were inspired by natural sources.
In the 1990s, computers and a technique by which large numbers of structurally distinct molecules may be synthesized in a time and submitted for pharmacological assay,1 known as combinatorial chemistry, became the chief mode of drug discovery, with results that fell short of expectations. Generally, natural products have higher molecular weights, incorporate fewer nitrogen, halogen or sulfur atoms but more oxygen atoms, and are sterically more complex than molecules designed by combinatorial methods. Nevertheless, since purity and intellectual property issues are clearer with new chemicals, natural product discovery was de-emphasized in favor of the new methods.
Beauty Ingredients Under Our Noses: The Honey Example
Honey alone or in combination with sugar is one of the traditional wound-healing cures with rich therapeutic histories and strong supportive evidence. And the beauty industry should take note. Materials useful in healing wounds typically have valuable skin treatment potential, and extensive evidence and theoretical underpinning exist for them. Honey has potent antibacterial properties, but works differently from antibiotics that attack bacterial cell walls or inhibit intracellular metabolic pathways. Honey draws moisture out of the environment and, thus, dehydrates bacteria. This is called the osmotic effect. Its sugar content is also high enough to hinder the growth of microbes. In 1919, it was discovered that the antibacterial properties of honey were increased when diluted. The explanation for this unexpected property came from the finding that honey contains an enzyme that produces hydrogen peroxide when diluted.
Looking a Little Deeper
Beyond the folkloric remedies that you are already familiar with, nature offers a bounty of therapeutic source materials—the trick for finding additional applications is often knowing where to look. Chimps in Tanzania eat the almost inedible leaves of the sunflower Aspila when they have intestinal ailments. Scientists studying this behavior found thiarubrine-A in the oil, which kills many types of bacteria, fungi and parasitic worms. Curiously, the people of Tanzania do the same thing, probably from watching the chimps. There is even an official name for learning therapeutic processes from animals: zoopharmacognosy—from the Greek zoo, meaning “animal;” pharma, “drug;” and gnosy, “knowing”—and coined by biochemist Eloy Rodriguez of Cornell University. Nigerians go to a salt lick near Lake Chad to get kanwa, an earth used as a nutritional supplement—as have done the indigenous animals for eons.2 Kanwa is also known as calcium montmorillonite, and contains more than 60 trace minerals that stimulate cellular growth and help reverse the aging process. It can be found in commercial skin creams, lip balm, masks, soaps, shampoos and conditioners.
And one of the latest innovations in naturally derived therapy is snail slime—specifically, material carefully extracted from stressed Helix aspersa Müller, a common land snail. Snail slime fits the three rules of cosmetic marketing: Find an exotic, preferably natural, ingredient; provide a creation myth often involving an accidental discovery; and create the official seal of credibility with a scientific report. Snail slime is surely exotic and natural. The discovery was accidentally made when Chilean snail farmers supplying the French gourmet market noticed softer skin and rapid healing of minor cuts and scars after handling the snails. For the sake of science, there is a review paper3 and a patent application.4 And then come the cosmetic applications, with Elicina Cream as a prominent example. Labcconte’s effort to bring a line based on snail concentrate to the North American market is also currently underway. The process of gathering the snail material for these products involves harvesting and gently warming the exuded material, and the process is disclosed in a patent application: “the annelids … are put into an aluminum, steel or iron pot exposed to low heat, the temperature of which varies between 40°–70°C, for a period between 1 and 10 minutes.” The extract is high in monosaturated and polysaturated oils. Allantoin, estastin and antibiotic peptides are also present. Also present in the resultant slime and of interest to the beauty industry, glycoconjugates are a biological complex of proteins and assorted other molecules. This mixture of enzymes, co-enzymes, peptides and other molecules allegedly improves cellular communication and eliminates scar tissue formation in the skin.
Snail slime also provides a source of metal peptides, where you enter the realm of biochemist Loren Pickart. He initially synthesized the material from soy protein and discovered its skin renewal properties. But we can, fortunately, now get our copper peptides from snail goop.
Through this assessment of the potential in natural resources and the accumulated insight into the use of these sources, it is clear that all knowledge has potential value. In an age of Twitter—with its tiny, unverifiable data bits—what lessons can be gleaned in evaluating the usefulness of substances such as honey, kanwa or snail slime? The modern scientific mind can sometimes shut down when confronted with anecdotal information. We would gain a wealth of possibilities by taking everything seriously. We could then objectively identify and embrace the best therapies emerging from thousands of years of experimentation in the best laboratory of all, the living world.
R Root-Bernsatin and M Root-Bernsatin, Honey, Mud, Maggots, and Other Medical Marvels, Houghton Mifflin (1997)
- www.combichemistry.com/principle.html (Accessed Aug 24, 2009)
- www.kanwaminerals.com (Accessed Aug 24, 2009)
- B Bonnemain, Helix and Drugs: Snails for Western Health Care From Antiquity to the Present, eCAM 2005; 2(1)25–28, doi:10.1093/ecam/neh057
- WO/2006/136540, Human Skin Regenetrating Ointment Comprising Annelid Extracts
Steve Herman is president of Diffusion LLC, a consulting company specializing in regulatory issues, intellectual property, and technology development and transfer. An adjunct professor in the Fairleigh Dickinson University Masters in Cosmetic Science program, his book, Fragrance Applications: A Survival Guide, was published by Allured Publishing Corp. in 2001. A former chairman of the Society of Cosmetic Chemist’s New York chapter, he was elected to fellow status in 2002.