Common British plants such as daffodils, dandelions and red clover are being analysed for their pharmacological properties, to extract the active ingredients on which herbal remedies are based, scientists told the British Association's meeting in Sheffield yesterday.
The government Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, based in Aberystwyth, and a local biosciences company, MolecularNature, are extracting 100 compounds a month from endemic plant species to test their effectiveness against everything from the common cold to senile dementia.
"Even bluebells were used to treat things like TB and there is a good reason to go back to see if there was anything behind their traditional uses. No-one has actually tested them as far as we can see," said Robert Nash, director of research at MolecularNature and a researcher at the institute.
"We're always finding amazing substances where we wouldn't expect to find them. For instance, bluebells contain a very wide range of novel compounds that are related to a group of compounds that have anti-viral and anti-cancer activity," he said.
Bluebells are known to have been used by Welsh monks in the 13th century to treat leprosy, which is caused by the same type of bacteria that causes TB.
"There are a lot of interesting new chemicals in bluebells, anyone of which could be a TB cure. One group we are looking at as potential compounds against TB are those that rupture the cell wall of the mycobacterium," Dr Nash said, adding that he was collaborating with Oxford University scientists to synthesise one bluebell substance.
TB poses a particular problem for medical scientists because it affects up to one-third of the world's population. Drug-resistant forms of the lung disease have emerged in industrialised countries.
"New drugs are desperately needed. For new drugs to be useful they will need to be cheap so they can be afforded in the developing world, require only a short treatment and have minimal adverse effects," said Dr Andrew Hayward, of the public health department at Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham.
Dr Maria Ines Chicarelli-Robinson, a researcher at MolecularNature, said that natural products had an inherent biological function. "A plant doesn't waste energy making a product that isn't used. If you take the 20 best- selling drugs, eight are from natural sources," she said
The history of herbal medicines in Wales goes back 1,000 years, and scientists are trawling through ancient records for clues that may help them find a substance that can be developed into a drug.
"We are looking at old Welsh books, talking to locals. They have used them for treating cancer, tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease, obesity," Dr Chicarelli-Robinson said.
"We want to research plants that are easily grown as crops. It will also give economic benefit for the farmers," she added.
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