Monday, November 5, 2007

Natural Products Researchers Using Chemistry to Further Improve Plant Compounds - Good or Bad?

I've just returned from a trip to Sweden, and noticed on this business trip how many companies are experimenting with a variety of high-tech methods to improve products obtained from herbs and other plants. It is becoming increasingly important for those companies in the natural health marketplace to have highly effective supplements; equally important, these products need to be differentiated from the competition.

The reasons for this requirement of "differentiation" can easily be understood when you think about how important it is to have an edge on the competition, in a marketplace where most products can not be patented. One standardized version of St. Johns Wart, for example, is not appreciably different than another, which means that it is difficult to have a proprietary edge to the extract. This keeps profit potentials low as well as presenting barriers to innovation. No company wants to innovate when they can't have a proprietary edge.

That is why many of them would love to have their botanical extract modified or improved in some way -- something that clinically improves its effectiveness and provides for differentiation.

Recently I read about the efforts that researchers in Japan are making to take a common biochemical from curry and improve its healing ability -- perhaps in a quest to have something "patentable" that will increase the value of the intellectual property of a company or institution.

In this case, two variations of a molecule commonly found in curry have shown a greater potential than naturally occurring molecules to suppress colon cancer. These researchers (Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan) synthesized and tested variations of curcumin, the yellowish component of turmeric that gives curry its flavour, in a bid to boost its anti-cancer effect.

Curcumin has already been linked between having a positive effect on cancer as well as potential benefits for reducing cholesterol levels and improving cardiovascular health. The natural curcumin, however, quickly loses its anti-cancer attributes once it is ingested.

These researchers looked at more than 90 variations of this molecule, structures synthesized by the team, and found that two versions of the curcumin molecule proved to be more potent and bioavailable (more accessible to the body). While the work from Tohoku University adds even greater weight to the potential of curcumin, it also shows that high-tech analogues of the original compound could indeed be produced and used to target cancers.

This is all very similar to the way that the drug industry initially developed. Traditional, home-brew remedies became chemically-modified and "enhanced" products that later built the huge pharmaceutical industry we have today.

While I welcome better botanical products, I personally want to see them remain as natural as possible. Many who feel as I do would resist a chemical version of curcumin (as an example) in favor of using the plant the way that it was intended. I urge natural products companies to work on improved and more efficient extraction processes, where great strides can still be made, and to avoid chemical modifications of botanical products.


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