Humans have been using nature to heal since before written language. Ancient civilisations created concoctions of seeds, herbs, leaves, fruit and bark to treat a variety of illnesses. Aloe vera has been used for thousands of years to soothe burns, and clay slabs from central India dating back 5,000 years ago, are the earliest written evidence of people using plants as drugs.
Around 11 per cent of the drugs considered ‘essential’ by the World Health Organisation originated in flowering plants and there are many more from those without flowers.
Even fungi growing on the fur of three-toed sloths have shown potential to fight cancer, malaria and bacterial infections, while the bright-blue blood of the horseshoe crab has been used in the development of Covid vaccines.
Scientists at Kew Gardens in London are storing specimens from around the world in seed banks and examining them in order to pinpoint new drugs and medicines.
Melanie-Jayne Howes, a researcher based at Kew Gardens, says plant-based treatments have a vital role to play in cancer therapies. “Even today, scientists have not been able to synthesise some drugs because they are so complex, we still rely on plants for key cancer drugs,” Howes told The Guardian.
In biodiversity hotspots, such as those in the tropics, Kew is raising local awareness of the importance of plant life and influencing national authorities to prioritise the protection of plants and their habitats.
Penicillin, morphine and some of the most effective chemotherapeutics have been derived from natural sources. Recent discoveries including Farnesol, found in fruits and herbs have been used to treat Parkinson’s disease, and a protein isolated from beetroot is being studied to treat inflammatory diseases.
Howes says the power of plants goes beyond fighting disease, “If we can show how we can source new medicines from nature by unlocking the useful properties of plants, then we help treat disease, but we also demonstrate the value of biodiversity and provide an incentive for people to protect it.”
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