WINTER 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 2
by Marga Lincoln
Nearly a quarter of all common medicines-including quinine, ipecac and morphine-are derived from plants. The most famous of these folk remedies is digitalis, which has been prescribed for heart ailments since a doctor in 1785 found a woman in Shropshire, England, who successfully used foxglove to treat patients with dropsy. More recently, a medicine made from birch bark is being used to treat melanoma, and the yew tree's taxol combats ovarian and breast cancer.
Ethan Russo and Rustem Medora
But discovering new medicines is as not easy as copying a native healer. Plants that are effective medicines do not necessarily become marketable drugs. It can take years and millions of dollars to take a chemical from the plant to the pharmacy shelf. Just ask Ethan Russo and Rustem Medora, two members of The University of Montana School of Pharmacy and Allied Health Science who work with medicinal plants.
A Cure for Migraines?
A Missoula neurologist and UM adjunct pharmacy professor, Russo has been on a lifelong search for an effective cure for migraines, the excruciating headaches accompanied by nausea that he and nearly 30 percent of the world's population suffer from.
In 1995, his interest took him from his mauve-carpeted office to the steaming Amazon jungles of Peru. Surrounded by trop- ical flowers and macaws, Russo stood knee-deep in swamps searching for medicinal herbs. With the help of Machiguengan herbalists, he collected 400 plants, ninety of which are used by the tribe for their psychoactive properties, such as alleviating headaches.
Russo tried several of the tribe's migraine treatments. The most effective was a plant known as sampakatishi, which an assistant, Mateo, administered to his wife for her migraine. Russo watched Mateo crush the plant's leaves and drip the juice into her eyes. Within a short time, her headache was gone. Russo had a similar experience. "It was amazing," he said. "It was quick and reliable, and didn't have any bad side effects."
Russo's research has moved to the crowded lab of Associate Professor Keith Parker and Medora. Parker tests extracts from Amazonian plants to see how well they bond to serotonin receptors, nerve sites in the brain that are active during migraines. Of the fifteen plant extracts tested, three have been good fits or "hits." Associate Professor Charles Thompson then isolates the active chemical compounds in these three extracts and retests their reaction to the serotonin receptors. If the chemicals are still successful "hits," the research will be turned over to a pharmaceutical company for further refinement and testing.
As research inches forward, however, relentless deforestation of the world's tropical rainforests is destroying potential plant knowledge. Only one percent of tropical plants have been examined for their medicinal potential, but ethnobotanists estimate that the rainforests contain more than 375 potential new drugs.
Medicinal Plants at UM
The study of medicinal plants at UM goes back to the turn of the century, when a medicinal garden grew where Aber Hall now stands. When Medora arrived at UM in 1967, the garden was just a memory, but he has done much to renew interest in medicinal plants. A native of India whose mother taught him the healing properties of her garden flowers, Medora was trained in pharmacognosy, the study of the medicinal uses of plants, animals and microbes. This background is reflected in his course, Pharmacy 324, an ethnopharmacological examination of medicinal plants and other natural substances that nourish, heal, injure or alter the conscious mind. Few pharmacy schools provide such training.
Medora is also producing the radio show "The Plant Detective: A Phytomedicinal Whodunit" on Montana Public Radio KUFM/KGPR. Each show introduces the reader to a new plant. In January, for example, listeners met the coneflower, a native plant that once graced UM's medicinal garden. Widely used by American Indians and pioneers, it is sold in health-food stores as echinacea. It recharges the immune system, helping to fight off colds, Medora says.
American Indians have used coneflower, arnica and bitterroot for centuries. Medora and others hope to keep this knowledge alive by recruiting young Indian students for the pharmacy school. Their work is paying off. For the first time in the school's history, seven students in the entering class are American Indians.
Medora is encouraged that herbal remedies are popular again after slipping into disfavor in the 1980s, with pharmaceutical companies, in particular. Recently, however, these companies have returned to studying natural products. "They go back to nature to find substances that boggle the imagination," says Medora. "Nature's chemistry is much more elaborate and intricate than anything the human mind invents."
Marga Lincoln is a freelance writer in Missoula.