National Geographic : 2000 Apr
Gomes's story was another illustration of why pharmaceutical companies spend an insignificant amount of their research money on natural products and why they focus most of their resources on genetic research and synthetic drug design: Understand the pathological process that causes disease, and design a molecule that fixes it. THIS ISN'T TO SAY that researchers have given up trying to produce effective pharmaceuticals from plants. In 1976 Baruch Blum berg won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on infectious viral diseases. Among his accomplishments was the discovery of an antigen, or a marker, on the surface of the hepatitis B virus cell. This dis covery led to the development of a hepatitis vaccine. Blumberg's vaccine is produced synthetically, but he and his team, hoping to treat people who had already contracted hepatitis B, later studied hundreds of plants used by traditional healers worldwide to fight jaundice, a symptom of the disease. They extracted chemicals from Phyllanthusamarus, a mainstay of India's Ayurvedic medicine. In lab oratory and animal tests, these chemicals acted on the hepatitis B virus, disrupting its development-a result repeated in a clinical trial on patients in India. When other researchers repeated the experiment, however, their find ings were inconclusive. The plant's effectiveness varied, apparently, depending on where it grew and when it was picked. I asked Blumberg if he believed that it was impossible for modern medicine to develop reli able pharmaceuticals from plants. "No" he replied. "The lesson is that we need a better way to deal with all the variables involved. We need a new way to listen to nature while maintaining all the advantages of science. Certainly science should be open to this. By definition science welcomes new evidence, new ways of thinking. It has no final truths. It is a continuous quest and exploration."