The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports a discovery that will amuse indigenous medicine people and provide more grist for those of us who get sick and tired of hearing how “primitive” we were before Columbus got lost.
Acetylsalicylic acid AKA aspirin was an indigenous pain remedy from willow bark that actually got patented. In fairness, that use of willow was indigenous to many places, not just the Americas, but the idea of patenting something tribal healers had always used is difficult for even modern Indians to get their heads around. It’s happened many times.
Peruvian Indians used cinchona seeds for medicine. The colonists made quinine from the seeds and quinine became the only treatment for malaria in the 19th century. Those same Indians, we’ve reported, are about to have the same thing happen to Lepidium meyenii AKA maca, an indigenous plant used to treat sexual dysfunctions.
The 20th Century brought a new “miracle cure” for malaria, artemisinin, created from ground up Artemisia plants. Artemisia is a genus that includes some 180 species found all over the world. One is wormwood, used by Mexican Indians as medicine and by Europeans as an ingredient in absinthe, liquor with a strange history of being banned even in places where liquor was not generally banned because of the lore surrounding it. Another is sagebrush, a common ingredient in traditional medicine as practiced by many North American tribes.
Unfortunately, some malaria parasites became resistant to the artemisinin treatment. The just-published study shows that the rodent malaria parasite most like the deadliest strain of human malaria that has become artemisinin-resistant can still be killed by simply feeding the mice ground up Artemisia plants.
In short, if this research holds up, the plant will work against deadly parasites where the highly refined “miracle drug” fails. The research team that made the discovery at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is still trying to understand how the plant works where the drug derived from it does not.
None of the scientists trying to beat malaria would be so crude as to point this out, but it’s hard for this Indian lawyer to see how the ground up plant material can be patented. Like the discovery in modern times that the dark, less refined version of xocol?tl AKA chocolate has medicinal use against heart disease, there won’t be a patent-enforced monopoly on a ground up plant.
Traditional medicine people often claim that natural remedies are not meant for sale. They mean, “shouldn’t be for sale.” This research points to a lifesaving treatment that can’t be for sale.