Sunday, May 19, 2013

Intelligent plants and we the dumb people

Some time back in a seminar, I heard a very concerned botanist and ayurveda expert talking about how most of the research in Ayurveda is going in the wrong direction. He said that currently most of it is aimed at discovering the active ingredients in various plants, extracting that ingredient and using it for the benefit of people. He simultaneously pointed out that most of the molecules used as ‘active ingredients’ in various medicines have proved to have relatively short useful life of few decades. Either the germs become resistant to this purified form of chemical or its effectiveness in humans start to drop over time. Compare this with herbs (crude mixture of several compounds) which have served mankind over several centuries without going out of fashion.

Ayurveda normally defines properties of herbal medicine as its ras (taste), gun (attributes), virya (potency), vipak (attributes of drug assimilation), and prabhav (dominating influence). For decades we have not added any herbs to Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia as we do not know how to identify these 5 properties of any new herb. His view was that new research should be aimed at solving this problem.

I heard another very senior and respected physician talking about how we try to simplify (over simplify) the traditional medical knowledge and try to put it in neatly drawn boxes. Think of coca leaves (from which cocaine is extracted) which are traditionally used in Latin America for both diarrhea as well as constipation. It might sound totally counter intuitive but it is true. Several herbs when used in their original form actually act as balancing herbs. So different ingredients become active based on the body’s condition. Nature surely is much more intelligent that most of us believe it to be.

I intuitively felt that these voices made a lot of sense but recently found some modern scientific proof for the same. It came from a very unusual source though. I recently met an old friend who works in open innovation area and he shared something very interesting.

A large MNC thought that it’ll be good business to be able to sell products with claims of health benefits derived from wisdom of traditional medical knowledge. Soon a big budget and high profile team was allocated for the project. Work began by empanelling doctors and Ayurveda institutes. Soon the team realized that they need scientific evidence to be able to make claims. More modern immunologists, doctors and labs were empanelled. A high profile researcher asked for an expensive piece of equipment, MALDI-TOF/TOF, and it was quickly sanctioned.

Trials started with some known ayurvedic remedies and soon team reached conclusions that most ayurvedic physicians know intuitively.
1.       There was no single molecule acting and triggering a change in the metabolism but there were multiple molecules acting at different stages of metabolic cycle and bringing about a change.
2.       Chromatography and Spectrophotometry revealed that the molecules were not the simple ingredients present in the plant but actually reaction products formed during processing of the herbs, through processes which are meticulously defined in ayurvedic reference texts.

The team realised that it is too complex a phenomenon to be explained through simple scientific tools and even more difficult to synthesize and incorporate these in everyday foods or products.

I wonder how something studied, invented, and documented centuries ago perhaps without help of any sophisticated equipment is so difficult for us to even understand today in spite of all the help from advanced measuring equipment and highly brainy computers. This reminds me of Buddha, who 25 centuries back discovered the nature, cause, and remedy of all sufferings just by looking deep inside himself and we with all advanced understanding of anatomy, physiology, and neural networks are still unable to comprehend. May be more on this in my next post.