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doi:10.1038/nindia.2018.32 Published online 14 March 2018

Phytochemical database raises hopes for herbal drugs

K. S. Jayaraman

Researchers in Chennai claim to have created the largest online database of phytochemicals derived from Indian medicinal plants. The database of phytochemicals – or biologically active compounds in plants – holds promise for discovery of new drugs from natural products.

India’s age-old traditional system of medicine relies heavily on medicinal plants. The formulations are based on empirical knowledge rather than a clear understanding of the active ingredients in medicinal mixtures. A comprehensive online phytochemical database, which may enable computational approaches towards natural product-based drug discovery, did not exist till now. Researchers at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) and Stella Maris College, both in Chennai, have manually curated the database. "The natural product library exclusively from Indian medicinal plants can be used for virtual screening and drug discovery," Areejit Samal, co-author and faculty member in computational biology at IMSc, told Nature India.

Called IMPPAT (Indian Medicinal Plants, Phytochemistry, And Therapeutics), the database contains information on the phytochemical composition and therapeutic uses of 1742 Indian medicinal plants belonging to Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani systems of medicine. "We spent more than one year to digitize and curate information contained in existing databases and more than 50 books on traditional Indian medicine," the authors report. Samal says they have created a library of 9596 phytochemicals with 2- and 3-dimensional chemical structures and predicted interactions between phytochemicals and human target proteins.

Importantly, using computational tools, the researchers have filtered a subset of 960 phytochemicals from the library that may be "good candidates for prospective drugs". Of these potentially ‘druggable’ phytochemicals, they found only 32 approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "The remaining 928 phytochemicals are novel candidates for natural product-based drugs," Samal says.

The researchers also compared the IMPPAT database with a large phytochemical database of Chinese herbs to conclude that both Indian and Chinese herbs "offer extensive opportunity for future drug discovery." They now hope to update the database with details of phytochemicals in different plant parts such as leaves, stem or root.

Darshan Shankar, Vice Chancellor of the Institute for Trans-Disciplinary Health Sciences in Bangalore, who developed the first organized database of Indian medicinal plants said ayurvedic formulations are combinations of dozens of molecules. "Interfaced with an Ayurvedic pharmacology database, IMPPAT can become a powerful platform for formulation-oriented drug discovery," he said.

C K Katiyar, CEO of India’s leading manufacturers of ayurvedic formulations Emami Ltd, said the database contains clues to 960 potential new drugs from medicinal plants and may drive many pharmaceutical companies to hunt for these.