Traditional Medicine Gaining Ground around the World (La Prensa, 1/23/13)

Mexico City -. According to statistics from the World Health Organization, the use of medicinal plants is a common practice around the world. 80% of the population in developing countries resort to different types of plants to meet or complement their medical needs and the percentage increases year after year.

In Mexico, the number of plants used for their healing attributes and which have been registered numbers four thousand species. However, it is estimated that only 5% have been studied to validate the chemical, pharmacological or biomedical active properties they contain (i.e., the chemical compounds in which medical usefulness resides).

Dr. Rosa Martha Pérez Gutiérrez, a researcher at the School of Chemical Engineering and Extractive Industries of the IPN (ESIQIE) brings more than thirty years of experience in searching for ingredients from a long list of popularly used plants and their validating effects. She obtains very good results since – she assures - about 95% of the time she has confirmed a curative effect attributed to the plant.

The effects range from anti-inflammatory, regenerating, antimicrobial and antioxidants to hypoglycemic (those that help lower blood sugar levels). For this last property she has found more than 40 plants, she says.

The plants studied in her laboratory, says the researcher, are chosen through a literature review or on field work, always on the basis of medicinal use. Once the plant is collected in the field or purchased in any traditional market, the plant is dried out, ground and mixed with solvents to remove all potential bioactive substances. Then, the 'gross' extract is separated into different fractions, each of which contains substances with specific chemical properties. Fractions of the extract are tested separately in animals, mainly rodents, to determine the toxicity and effectiveness of each.

In the end, the selected fractions continue to be 'cleaned' until reaching pure compounds. These are sent to another laboratory to be chemically identified more accurately. Later, if the compound is viable to be manufactured on a larger scale in the pharmaceutical industry, said Pérez Gutierrez, it is possible to register a patent and continue with other more specialized investigations.

This way of obtaining active ingredients has several advantages, she says. One of these is if they are composed of low or no toxicity to the human body. She reports, "In the majority of cases we have obviated the toxicity because we are working with edible plants". In addition the path is shortened for compounds of interest, because the pharmaceutical industry usually produces hundreds or thousands of substances that are then studied to test effectiveness, which means more time and money is invested. Another advantage is when there is potential to design more active compounds. This can be done by modifying chemical structures of the original compounds once it has been fully deciphered.

The researcher clarifies that production on a large scale is far from being a sphere of competence, however, there has been interest in developing models that allow the extraction of the compounds in small amounts, such as grams. This is testing is done with microorganisms of bacteria and fungi, which live inside plants, and substances are manufactured similar or equal these. They are museums of pharmaceutical production.

They are also making inroads in practical applications. Systems of tiny particles are 'charged' with drugs, which then release them in a controlled manner. For now, her group of collaborators is working with plants such as the palo amargo (bitter stick), cuachalalate and pitahaya, which are used for their medicinal effects in some communities in the country.


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