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Honey and Snails

By: Steve Herman
Posted: October 5, 2009, from the October 2009 issue of GCI Magazine.

“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.

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.