doi:10.1038/nindia.2015.138 Published online 20 October 2015
This year's Nobel Prize for medicine, that is seen as a tacit recognition of traditional remedies, has given a boost to Indian researchers trying to find the scientific basis for several cures in India's ancient system of medicine 'Ayurveda'.
Youyou Tu working at the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine shared the medicine Nobel for isolating the anti-malarial principle artemisinin from a sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) after she found a reference to its use in a Chinese text dating back to about 400AD.
"I hope the Nobel Award for the discovery of artemisinin would be a morale booster for Indian scientists who have laboured on the trail of potent molecules in the medicinal plants of Ayurveda for many years," Marthanda Sankaran Valiathan, a cardiac surgeon and passionate exponent of Ayurveda, told Nature India.
Ayurveda gave the western world in the 1950s its first medicine to treat high blood pressure — a compound called reserpine extracted from the Indian snakeroot (Raulfia serpentina) that caught the attention of researchers as a folk/bazaar medicine in Lucknow.
Valiathan says that from a study of the three classical texts of Ayurveda and a recent work at the Centre For Neuroscience (CFN) of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore he has hope that a molecule for the arrest or reversal of neurodegeneration in dementias would be found in the plants listed by Charaka, one of the ancient pioneers of Ayurveda. "That would be India’s glorious gift to the relief of massive human suffering."
Such a molecule has already been found by a group led by Vijayalakshmi Ravindranath at CFN in the extract of the root of Withania somnifera (Aswagandha) commonly known as Indian ginseng, that she says "reverses Alzheimer's disease pathology in transgenic mice"1.
"It is true that many active compounds from Ayurveda — psoralens for vitiligo, holarrhena alkaloids for amoebiasis, guggulsterons as hypolipidemic agents, mucuna pruriens for Parkinson’s Disease, picrosides for hepatic protection, phyllanthins as antivirals, curcumines for inflammation — could serve as good scaffolds for rational drug design," adds Bhushan Patwardhan, a professor at the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune. "The list is very long but we have not gone deep on the discovery path as the Ayurveda fraternity has remained blind followers of the ancient texts engrossed in past glory instead of undertaking rigorous scientific research."
"Recognition of the discovery of artemisinin should enhance the interest in traditional medical leads for drug discovery in India," says Annamma Spudich, a cell biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. "But the discovery of artemisinin was very prolonged and required years of dedicated effort."
Valiathan says he doubts "whether India has the will to mount the kind of intense, single-minded and tightly run mission which Tu organized in response to (Chairman) Mao’s call."
Subhash Lakhotia , emeritus professor at the Benaras Hindu University who has just returned after attending an international meeting on traditional medicines in Beijing says the research labs at the CACMS institutes are "simply fabulous" and India is "way behind, both in material facilities as well as in intellectual and concerted efforts."
Prakash Diwan, founder Director of the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPER) in Hyderabad, says Indian herbal research is like the "blind men and elephant story" with acclaimed scientists doing research in bits and pieces for publication.
But experts believe the present government's efforts — a separate department for Yoga and Ayurveda with increase in budget (from Rs 12 billion to Rs 50 billion), a brand new university for Ayurveda, and a well-funded programme on "Ayurgenomics" to establish the genetic bases of Ayurvedic traits — offer hopes for revival of Ayurveda.
However Lakhotia cautions that in order to succeed, modern biomedical scientific community needs to take the onus and lead with active collaboration of Ayurvedic practitioners. "This is not happening at present," says Patwardhan. Moreover, he says, such high impact research cannot be done in a typical 'project' mode with small and short term objectives. A national mission on natural product drug discovery is the need of the hour, he feels. "A mission on promising medicinal plants like Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) or Guduchi (Tinospora cordifolia) could lead to major discoveries and lead to success stories like artemisinin."
1. Sehgal, N. et al. Withania somnifera reverses Alzheimer's disease pathology by enhancing low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein in liver. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA (2012) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1112209109