The Access Excellence Periodic


We caught up with Dr. Alondra Oubre, Medical Anthropologist at Shaman Pharmaceuticals, after her talk on "The Integrative Approach of Ethnobotany and Ethnomedicine".

Dr. Oubre outlined an innovative ethnobotanical approach to drug discovery based on sending a team of western scientists, ethnobotanists and physicians to the tropical areas who interact with local healers to identify and subsequently prioritize promising plants likely to be bioactive, based on their uses in traditional medicine.

An important part of this approach is reciprocity, whereby the visiting scientists contribute something useful to the community it is visiting, such as water purification facilities or medicines. In the longer term, there are plans to establish a system whereby contributing communities would receive compensation akin to royalties from the sales of any drugs developed using this method.

Q: Do you feel like you are working against the clock to find new compounds as rain forests are vanishing? Do your efforts contribute to the conservation of species

A:Working against time against the loss of habitat, this is a given of ethnobotany. We spend a lot of time working on these issues.

When we go to a tropical location, we first first gather information locally about the overall habitat, the degree to which the area's biodiversity may be threatened, as well as the liklihood of finding less studied medicinal plants. We don't collect any plant species until we've done an assessment, either on site or later, on its conservation status. Often we have contracted collector and we work with local Western trained scientists from the Thrid World host countries as well as tradiitonal healers (whom we consider to be indigenous scientists. Our botanists make sure that we get all the appropriate government permits, pay local people for the plant materials, and develop collaborative relations with scientists in the host country.

In this manner, we establish a three-tiered approach of working with (1) local communities; (2) scientists and conservation experts; and (3) government organizations and often (4) NGO's.

Our botanist also makes sure that supply issue takes into account the conservation status of the plants.

Q: Previous attempts to find drugs in the rain forest typically involved bring back bags of leaves and bark and testing them in the lab for activity. How has this changed?

A:We've realized the importance of formulation and preparation in ethnomedicine. It is very important to get information not only on which plant is associated with which treatment, but which part of the plant and how it is prepared. We must have very specific information in order to do valid scientific screening. We want to know which part of the plant to use, what time of the year it is picked and how it is prepared. We record information on how much in weight is used of the different plant and which solvent is used in what concentration. We also record whether the substance is formulated as a decoction, infusion, topical, or other preparation. In this sense, we are acknowledging the wisdom and practical empirical knowledge that goes into tradiitonal medical preparations. It is for this reason that we see healers as our colleagues, and scientists in their own right using highly skilled cognitive processes.

On the practical level, we have had experiences in the lab where the pharmacologist carefully reviews our field notes and after changing the formula to concur with the healer's manages to demonstrate activity in laboratory studies where we did not see it before.

Q:Has the ethnobotanical approach to drug discovery led to any promising substances?

A:Oh yes. We have a number of compound nds in various states of testing, including two that are now in clinical trials. These include an anti-viral drug and a drug that may prove useful for cholera-associated diarrhea. We also have patented a number of nove compounds which look promising as new therapeutic agents for NIDDm (noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus).

Q:Why would a shaman want to work with outsiders?

A:a number of reasons. Any group has a right to say no, and we are careful to avoid manipulating anyone to work with us . in most cases, many healers want to work with us because things are changing rapidly. Some governments are now undergoing major changes, implementing biodiversity conservation policies.

Again it depends where we are. A lot of healers want to be recognized. We don't compensate them individually, other than for hourly consulting. We aim at creating a larger collective exchange between their community and us.

We've seen that people want to have their own cultural knowledge validated. No one can remain isolated from the world anymore. the irony is, that by giving up a certain amount of knowledge they get increased cultural cohesion, and the funding from the project can help keep the culture going. This engenders new interest in the and the young people for the old ways. We've developed little books in the local dialects for communities on their local medicinal plants, a reflection of their own cultural heritage.

We also find that the healers appreciate knowing if the plants work by our western scientific measures.

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