Several years ago, I read a short joke that as much as anything was a commentary on the cycle of medicine development over the ages. It started with one caveman telling another "Here, eat this leaf", progressed to a medieval apothecary saying "Take this tincture", then to a modern physician telling a patient to "Take this pill", and finally to an herbalist telling someone to "Eat this leaf". In its own way, the joke was trying to spell out the great divide that had developed between modern science and folk remedies; two fields that had started as one.
In one form or another, humans have likely been practicing medicine for a million or more years, but it has only been within the last century or so that we have tackled the discovery, development, and practice of medicine as a science; relying on rational thought and rigorous inquiry. In doing so, we have lost—in some cases, callously dismissed—the knowledge of our forebears. Recent evidence, however, suggests that we may be opening our eyes and ears to the past.
Much of modern medicine has come from labs throughout Western Europe and North America; places that have largely abandoned their medicinal history to the tenets of science. Although these labs have produced a handful of drugs that directly or indirectly stem from folk remedies—paclitaxel, ASA, neem oil—these examples are more the exception than the rule.
Over the last decade, however, as Western companies have started to branch into countries like China and India—places rich in folk traditions—there seems to have been an awakening on the part of Western scientists to the possibilities inherent in new ways of thinking and new chemistries to be discovered. The result is an increase in the number of studies to systematically examine traditional medicines.
Case in point, technology specialist Invitrogen recently announced their collaboration with Shanghai's National Center for Drug Screening (NCDS) to facilitate the high-throughput analysis of the NCDS's thousands of compounds and natural product extracts that form the basis of traditional Chinese medicine. In the announcement, Invitrogen's director of drug discovery solutions, Dr. John Printen, explained the company's perspective: "The NCDS's strength in natural products research and traditional Chinese medicine will significantly broaden our reach into new areas of medical technology."
The reality is that people have survived for millions of years without the benefit of modern pharmaceuticals. Perhaps they didn't live as long or as well as people in the modern Western world, but they managed to eek out cultures and civilizations all the same. These were people who survived through many of the same ailments that we face today, including infectious diseases and injuries.
Their survival depended in large part on the medicines they developed over time, folk knowledge that was handed down from generation to generation. Not to tap into this knowledge is an incredible egotistical oversight on our part.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that the pharmaceutical industry abandon its rational approach to drug discovery in favor of an all-out effort to analyze folk remedies, but it is good to see that the industry is at least willing to (finally) recognize that just because people don't wear lab coats doesn't mean that they are complete idiots.
Sometimes, when you're stuck for an idea or just need to rest your head, it is good to go see the folks.