In the late 1800s, it is believed that the Micmac Native Americans of Nova Scotia used an herbal remedy—a botanical infusion derived from a species of the pitcher plant—to treat smallpox, reported Chemistry World, a publication that features important research published in Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) journals.
Now extracts of the plant could serve as a crucial defense in the event of biological warfare.
Through in vitro experiments, Jeffrey Langland, co-chair of the research department at Arizona State University in Tempe, and his colleagues have discovered this botanical extract inhibits replication of the variola virus, which causes the contagious disease.
"There is much scepticism on herbal medicine but what our results illustrate conclusively is that this herb is able to kill the virus and we can actually demonstrate how it kills the virus," Langland told Chemistry World. "It takes this herb out of the realm of folklore, and into the area of true scientific evidence."
While the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1979, the remote possibility exists that terrorists groups could have acquired stocks of the virus following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which developed smallpox as a biological weapon during the Cold War, BBC reported.
Dr. Kanatjan Alibekov, also known as Ken Alibek, the chief scientist at Biopreparat (the Soviet Union's former major biological warfare agency) from 1987 to 1992, later revealed to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers that "unemployed or badly-paid scientists are likely to have sold samples of smallpox clandestinely and gone to work in rogue states engaged in illicit biological weapons development," states BBC. According to Alibek, the Kremlin Guard Force (KGB) understood that once eradicated, the smallpox virus had the potential to be "the most powerful and effective weapon ever created to eliminate human life."
While smallpox vaccinations can be and still are administered to at-risk groups including some members of the U.S. military and researchers working with poxviruses, the serious side effects of the vaccine make it hard to justify administering to everyone, Chemistry World reported. "Developing therapies is therefore important in order to treat people if a bioterror event does occur," the publication states.
"With smallpox, it is obviously impossible to see if this herb is effective in the human body unless a bioterror release of the virus occurs," Langland told Chemistry World. "We are in the process of doing animal studies to confirm our results in at least this type of whole animal system."