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Curing Lessons Learned from Plants

The Madagascar rosy periwinkle looks like a normal flower, something you might see in a neighbor's flowerbed. Its small white flowers with bright pink centers stand out from the glossy green foliage.

The rosy periwinkle is an ordinary plant with extraordinary capabilities. Vincristine and vinblastine, two drugs derived from the plant, are used to treat childhood leukemia and cases of Hodgkin's disease respectively.

rosy periwinkle

Rosy periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus, is used in treating childhood leukemia.
Photograph by Heather R. Hoffman/National Geographic Society

It is plants like the periwinkle that have led to the development of 25 to 50 percent of prescription drugs used in the United States. But in the last 40 years, fewer than a dozen drugs approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration were developed from plants.

"The chemicals in plants are very powerful," said Joel Swerdlow.

Nature's Medicine

Swerdlow, researcher, professor, journalist, and assistant editor for National Geographic magazine, spent five years traveling to places like Madagascar and India to learn more about plant-based cures for his 2000 book Nature's Medicine: Plants That Heal and a feature article for National Geographic.

At the beginning of his study, Swerdlow, sibling of two Western-trained doctors, said he started out as a believer in Western, science-based medicine.

"Two-thirds of the world uses plant-based medicines because they simply don't have any other choice," said Swerdlow.

After visiting healers and medicinemen; doctors and scientists, Swerdlow said he hasn't turned to what is known as herbal medicine. "I am not talking about herbal remedies," he said. "What I think we can do is invent a new kind of medicine."

Swerdlow said he sees a change in Western medicine to include drugs that have multiple active ingredients patterned after the complex healing powers of plants. "Opening up a plant and trying to find the part that heals is like opening up a radio and finding the part that makes the sound," he explained.

Billion Years of Evolution

In more than one billion years of evolution, plants have developed countless chemicals that help them ward off microbes such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. These chemical combinations also give the plants protection from insects and herbivores.

"Most drugs have only one active ingredient," said Swerdlow commenting on current Western drug research focused on medicines that contain simple chemical compounds.

Swerdlow points out that some science-based medicines, such as the drug cocktail used to treat AIDS and a combination of chemotherapy drugs used to fight cancer, are using multiple active ingredient treatments.

Nature provides the most powerful cure-all drug, said Swerdlow. It has been scientifically proven to lower risks of heart disease, reduce chances of developing cancer, and prevent strokes (the three leading causes of death in the United States) all without side effects. This miracle drug is simply eating fruits and vegetables every day.

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