Bringing Alternative Medicine into the Mainstream

A week back, the Government of India issued a press release that referenced the Golden Triangle Partnership Scheme. Now, the Economist has a more elaborate article on it:

India, too, has a long tradition of herbal medicine, and its government is keen that this tradition should be brought into the mainstream, to the profit of the country’s burgeoning drug industry. To that end, it is spending about $40m on what is known as the Golden Triangle Partnership, to assess the country’s herbs scientifically, and select those suitable for serious investigation.

Most Indian herbal remedies are based on the Ayurvedic system of medicine, although Tamil-based Siddha and Unani, which has Persian roots, are also used extensively. Proving their worth is a daunting task. There are 80,000 Ayurvedic treatments alone, involving the products of some 3,000 plants. More than 7,000 firms make herbal compounds for medical use. Establishing the active ingredients and exactly how they work would thus take some time.

The Golden Triangle Partnership is not, however, looking for new molecules to turn into chemically pure drugs. Instead, it proposes to make herbal medicine itself more scientific by conducting clinical trials of traditional treatments for more than 20 medical conditions. These include arthritis, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, malaria and psoriasis.

To do that means getting the country’s drug companies to take part in what is, for them, the non-traditional activity of traditional medicine. One of these firms, Ranbaxy, has already opened a small research and development division for herbal medicine and is beginning to look at remedies for conditions such as diabetes.

What are the exact means and objectives of this effort?

To encourage such developments the project’s partners are trying to identify how the potency of herbs varies with exposure to the sun, the type of soil in which they are grown, and when and how they are harvested. With that information, they can define standard doses and clinical trials can begin. If the trials succeed, the treatments that result should be patentable—unlike the traditional formulations.

alt_med A bit sarcastically, the article is titled “Growing wiser“. Yes, on the whole, I think the objective is great. The more we are able to make alternative product development a scientific process, the better. At present, anyone can package anything and sell it as an Ayurvedic product, with no tests or checks. The Government promised Rs. 5 lakhs (INR 500,000) to all ayurvedic firms encouraging them to go in for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certification, but I’m not sure how much of it went to the bureaucrats for bribes in getting the certification.

While this is all good, I’m not sure about the patentability of Homeopathic treatments. How can a therapy that increases the potency of a substance by diluting it further with water, and thus contradicts the laws of chemistry and physics, get patents? Will it convince the skeptics?

I’m not against alternative medicine. In fact, I would love it to be more scientific and less misused. It may be a huge economic opportunity for India if we’re able to patent and export alternative medicinal remedies that have gained scientific acceptability. I’m just not too optimistic about it yet.

Image Credit: UK Skeptics

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10 thoughts on “Bringing Alternative Medicine into the Mainstream

  1. Sadly students opting for medicine after 12th pick Ayurveda as a last option, so the area gets less talented individuals. Maybe thats because there is not much money in Ayurveda. Somewhere I read that 40% of Indians avoid visiting the Allopathic doctor simply because they prefer to try Grandma’s solution first (maybe Rambodoc can second this).
    And Homeopathy? Is it even a real science?
    I appreciate the initiative! However, 5 lakh is insignificant amount, especially due to the red tape you mentioned!

    PS: You have a image credit, but I can’t see no image (thats Americanised english) ;)

  2. Priyank: true, you point out an interesting fact, that as a lesser attractive career option, it gets less talented individuals. If and only if such projects and efforts succeed in making it mainstream, can the economic potential of these therapies be realized.

    There were attempts to prove Homeopathy was a science, but as far as I know, they’ve been refuted.

    Hope the image is now visible. I had linked externally to it, and could see it in my browser, but then used a local copy. Thanks for letting me know!

  3. This is not going to work. I guarantee this. The reason is that the drug trials, in order to be of the highest level, will be beyond the budget of all these companies, who don’t have a mindset to invest heavily on R&D, having been content with stealing patents in some way or the other all these years. If proper high level evidence is collected, most of these herbal cures may be found to be BS, effectively wiping them out as marketable products. In all probability, the drugs will be used in poorly designed Third World-mode trials, and will claim roaring efficacies, but never see it reflected in practice. Just like today, these products are available, with zero evidence. So we would have, essentially, come full circle.
    Yeah, a stray wonder drug may be discovered, but I don’t think it is going to happen any day soon.

  4. Rambodoc: thanks for substantiating my pessimism, with your knowledge and experience in this field. Now, what bothers me is the $40 million our government is spending on this. That is a lot of money. Is this really “getting wiser”?

  5. //what bothers me is the $40 million our government is spending on this. That is a lot of money.//Don’t worry about that @mahendrap. Our govt will find some other avenues to waste money if not this.More than 50%of the allocated money will go to the babus anyways.

  6. I agree with Pr3rna. I dont think much of that amount will reach its intended destination anyway. Its difficult for ayurveda to attract talented individuals for sure, maybe its growing popularity in the west can change this years down the line. But we need to fight for those patents anyway.

  7. I agree with Rambodoc and Oemar. Money is going to be wasted just like that. The real challenge in herbal medicine is to identify the key metabolites or protein/enzyme or organic compound useful for the cure and to patent it and use for producing highly efficient drugs. It needs sophisticated equipments like chromatographic machines and DNA and protein sequencers, etc and related costly consumables and skilled manpower to achieve it. If the Govt. really wants to do something viable, then it need to collaborate with organizations like Reddy’s lab (who have the necessary skilled manpower and equipments in place) to do the high end molecular work, while also collaborating with other govt research organizations and hospitals to carry out the part of work where they have their advantage (such as trials).

  8. Yes, Thiru – what they call ‘public-private-partnership’ seems to be a possible viable approach in many of our country’s challenges – infrastructure, medicine, and so on!

  9. when u mention ‘alternative medicine’ I can atleast accept Ayurvedic remedies. In a few simple ailments , looks like it helps..atleast its kind of mental conditioning. Like the ginger tea that is given as cure for cold…God knows it has never gotten rid of the virus , but atleast its soothing.
    But talk about reiki and pranic…it gets on my nerves.
    homeopathy is another sham.

  10. Sree: I wouldn’t go so far as to term homeopathy a ‘sham’. I’m with you regarding Reiki and probably Pranic, with respect to its mystical foundations. But regarding homeopathy, I wouldn’t say things are so simple. Homeopathy seems to have worked in many cases, and there are strong arguments for it. But, no scientific basis. So, I’m an ‘agnostic’ regarding homeopathy.

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