Herbal cocktails to lead revolution in medicines

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Herbal remedies will lead a revolution in medical treatment within 10 years, using ancient recipes with thousands of active compounds instead of pharmaceuticals with a single active element, scientists predict.

Herbal remedies will lead a revolution in medical treatment within 10 years, using ancient recipes with thousands of active compounds instead of pharmaceuticals with a single active element, scientists predict.

Dr John Wilkinson, of the University of Middlesex, said that he will tell the British Association meeting tomorrow that herbs such as sage contain groups of chemicals which interact, and have more effect combined than separately.

Meanwhile, a company called Oxford Natural Products will this year start the first-ever clinical trials of a herbal extract to treat painful periods and hip pains in women. The product is based on three traditional Chinese medicines, and results of the work should be available in about 18 months.

Dr Wilkinson said that such trials, and his own work on the common herb sage - which in extract form may be used to treat Alzheimer's Disease - suggest that the medical profession is moving towards an entirely new stage in the development of treatments.

"We are going to see a second generation of herbal medicines which will be truly pharmaceutical versions of the original product. They will still be available over the counter in health food shops, but also prescribed by GPs." Key to the new development is an acceptance by the scientific and medical professions of the complexity and subtlety of ancient natural treatments for a range of illnesses, he said. "We could see the first effects in two or three years, though I think realistically this is 10 to 20 years from common use."

Herbal medicines have recently made rapid strides: earlier this month St John's wort was shown to treat depression with fewer side-effects than pharmaceuticals. Other products that show promise aremonks' pepper - a herb used in monasteries in the Middle Ages to depress libido - yam extract and cannabis, which many multiple sclerosis sufferers use to relieve their symptoms.

"Pharmaceutical companies tend to focus on one active compound, but we are taking a holistic view, looking at extracts which contain thousands of different molecules," he said. "We accept that often the herbal extract - produced by boiling or whatever - works as a treatment, but if you try to use a single compound it doesn't. So we're trying to understand the synergy between those molecules. It's like listening to music - you can listen to one note, or to chords. With one note all the time it becomes boring. Medicine is moving on to chords."

Sage contains chemicals which slow the action of an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (Ace): slowing down Ace activity in the brain is important to improve the development of memories. "We have looked at individual compounds in the extract, but the extract is more active than any single compound in it," said Dr Wilkinson. "We have to use artificial intelligence systems to point out which are the best combinations of compounds to include: sometimes we find that some chemicals in the extract actually reduce its potency."

Dr Peter Hoyland, chief executive of Oxford Natural Products, said: "The synergy effect with these extracts is real. And there is also the advantage that these extracts are often less toxic than a new synthesized chemical."

The study into a herbal treatment for period pains will recruit 80 volunteers by the end of the year. "About two-thirds of women in the UK have painful periods, and three-quarters of them report that it is debilitating," said Dr Stephen Kennedy, a reader in gynaecology at the University of Oxford. "Two-thirds of those with pain take something for it. But nobody knows how effective those medicines actually are."

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