Scientists delving into traditional plant therapies

Greece’s botanical wealth has made it ideal for the study of ethnopharmacology – the study of active compounds present in natural products traditionally used by local populations – and since 1995 the Hellenic Society of Ethnopharmacology has been encouraging the study of the therapeutic characteristics of plants, an evaluation of alternative medicine and its relationship with current therapeutic trends. Members of the society are pharmacists (about 80 percent), medical doctors, biologists, foresters and agronomists, but all walks of life are represented among the participants in its field trips, held two or three times a year, and lectures in Athens. This science involves a number of concepts that invariably call for a multidisciplinary approach, making it a dauntingly complex field for the amateur. It is not just a study of herbal medicine or alternative therapies, but contributes to the development of new pharmaceutical products. Many valuable drugs used today (such as atropine and ephedrine, to name just two) came into use through the study of indigenous remedies. In a paper presented to the Hellenic Society of Ethnopharmacology last year, pharmacist Manolis Mitakis discussed the modern medications that have been derived from plants. He explained that sometimes drug companies are unwilling to make public the plant-based origins of their drugs, and one reason is the difficulty of patenting a plant. So not many people know that an extract from the vampire bat’s saliva is used in the treatment of thrombosis, or that a component of Viagra originates in the humble caper. Of course, this does not mean that eating a lot of a particular food will have the same effect; it is the extract of a specific active compound that is used in a remedy. Field trips to the source «Our field trips are not just excursions,» explained pharmacist Stelios Kakayiannis, the society’s public relations officer. «We experience the entire process. For example, on our trip to Mount Pelion last year to study the sage (Salvia officinalis), we saw how the herb was collected and sorted and the therapeutic compounds extracted.» Each event or excursion is on a theme relevant to a specific drug or disease and its management, by both the classical as well as the alternative therapeutic methods. Every year the society «adopts» a drug of special interest. Some of the drugs it has examined are bee venom (Apis mellifica), the grape (Vitis vinifera), the olive (Olea europea), Greek mountain tea (Sideritis spp), and the crocus (Crocus sativus). Transcripts from scientific papers presented at past events are available on the society’s website ( and include a variety of subjects ranging from the phytotherapeutic approach to diseases of the urinary tract to the therapeutic value of citrus fruits and pro-biotic remedies. Events planned for the coming year include a field trip to the island of Andros on May 14-15 to study thyme and another to Chios in autumn (September 16 and 17) to study mastic gum and resin. Dates will be announced later for an event to be held in Athens this year on the relationship between ethnopharmacology and Chinese traditional medicine. The society has also prepared a detailed questionnaire for researchers to record all the information on the collection methods, processing and dosage, for example. The data are recorded using the «historical ethnographic» method, because the researcher uses all the historical sources that an historian would for a specific period and begins from an empirical observation of the place and its people, aimed at a comprehensive view. The questionnaire is available on the society’s web page. Biodiversity About a quarter of the drugs used today come from plants. In Greece there are about 7,000 plant species, many of them in use for therapeutic purposes since antiquity. Ethnopharmacology also involves recognizing the importance of biodiversity and preserving local knowledge and indigenous medical systems for primary health care. Although most plant-based drugs originated in the study of the traditional uses of these plants in local communities, ethnopharmacologists in Greece today find they must depend on their own research or on sources elsewhere, as very few people in local communities have a knowledge of the benefits of plants or the need to protect the diversity of species within their own area, said Kakayiannis. According to Mitakis, only about 10 percent of the earth’s plant species have been examined for their potential pharmacological benefits, so it is a growing field. Drug companies are putting increasing amounts of money into research in this sector, said Kakayiannis. «This is the biggest research sector (in pharmaceuticals) today,» he said. «The industry is focusing more and more on products used by indigenous peoples.» Hellenic Society of Ethnopharmacology, 64 Archimidous, 16343, Ilioupoli, tel 210.992.6518/993.1394/994.0017.

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