Of Nutraceuticals and Pharmaceuticals…Healing Plants

Recently I’ve taken to referring to Mommy as a Bush Woman. Why? Because I can’t even think of clearing my throat before she starts diagnosing and recommending which food, bush, fruit skin, herb, or mix up I should take. And, of course, she’s often right (there, Mommy, I said it!). Even Grandpa is in on it, recommending cornmeal porridge when I was dealing with stomach issues a while back and always offering up white rum for colds. Last Christmas I failed to avoid several steaming mugs of some mix up (she still won’t tell me) for a cold I caught…those mugs, along with a couple shots of white rum and lime, worked. Funny, when I got medicine from the pharmacy I actually felt worse. Her approach isn’t that much of a surprise because Jamaicans have long been using the foods, herbs, and seasonings we use regularly to heal. Many cultures do. Now it’s almost become automatic for me to reach for garlic tea when I feel a sniffle threatening to become worse, or for ginger tea when my tummy is upset or when I’m nauseous. And, of course, I try to drink cucumber juice often because I find it helps me with my sinuses in addition to being refreshing. My friend Sherman shared with me the benefits of rosemary for the skin. He’s used it to treat his scalp and has used it to help his wife with allergic reactions to MSG. To be sure, pharmaceuticals have their place and their uses but I am far more comfortable with first trying to address maladies with the food in my kitchen.

Back in October as I listened to an episode of the Kojo Nnamdi show about “The Medicine Cabinet In Your Garden” I wondered whether research was being done to monetize Jamaica’s healing culture. I was sure that the properties of indigenous Jamaican plants was being studied at the UWI but wondered what was being done to transform this into a pharmaceutical industry. After all, common things like aspirin were synthesized from a plant that “ancients” long knew treated pain: willow bark.

L-R: Professor Manley West (1933 – 2012), Dr. Henry Lowe, Dr. Rupika Delgoda

Fast forward to earlier this week when I was listening to the BBC World Service and heard promo for a program that would talk about growing drugs in Jamaica. I groaned and braced myself wondering, “Really BBC?” Yuh BBC. Cho. Fine it may not be what I may think but good grief. Anyway I was pleasantly surprised that the segment was really about the nascent nutraceutical industry in Jamaica. The program was BBC’s One Planet and the segment was “The Green Games.” (The program is available for the next 26 days and the segment on Jamaica begins 11:50 minutes in; the podcast is downloadable.) The program featured interviews of Minister of Health Dr. Fenton Ferguson (I cringed…) and of Dr. Rupika Delgoda who expressed the hope that Jamaican flora could be researched to find cures for diseases like cancer. Dr. Delgoda is responsible for the research at the Biochem lab at the Natural Products Unit at the UWI. She hopes for funding and support to help investigate Jamaican plants not yet fully understood, but which, in addition to the health benefits, has the additional real and important benefit of building a vibrant research community in Jamaica. Fantastic. I have long said that the brilliant scientific minds I’ve seen or have come to know about in Jamaica can and should be nurtured to be more than physicians; there is equally meaningful work to be done in a lab with plants, fungi, and bacteria. Meanwhile, Dr. Ferguson noted the real threat of other countries’ scientists or agents taking Jamaican plants abroad and synthesizing useful drugs with little or no benefit to the people of Jamaica. Think about how we grow sugar cane and import sugar…. And it’s happened already. According to the piece, “the Jamaican herb periwinkle was found to help cancer sufferers but the investment came from Canada. The rewards went there too.”

The periwinkle I used to stomp on outtah mi Granny gate!? O. Then again look on prongonut (translation: pomegranate for you non-Jamaicans) turn big big antioxidant. I used to walk by a tree every day and guard its fruit from passersby. Now whenever I walk by bottles of Pom I shake my head and look askance at the price. Successfully monetized nutraceutical.

Recall the synthesis of Canasol from ganja/marijuana/weed by Dr. Manley West and Dr. Albert Lockhart to treat glaucoma . Successfully monetized pharmaceutical.

We can do it.

Diane Robertson, a former pharmacist, shared her preference for “going into [her] kitchen spices” to find remedies. According to the program she is working with GOJ to “try and transform the local knowledge of herbs into a commercially successful industry.” She’s currently doing a course on medicinal plants in Jamaica and she is also working with UTech to plan a degree course to train folks in nutraceuticals. And, of course, Dr. Henry Lowe was interviewed and spoke about his new product Alpha Prostate 1. He’s been researching Jamaican bush for 40 years.

There is important research research to be done not only for Jamaica’s economic and scientific benefit, but also to address global needs. Consider the rise of drug resistant bacteria and super bugs (the latest seems to be gonorrhea), scarce drugs, and new and as yet undiscovered bugs. Consider too allergies and body chemistry and benefits to those who ail.

Simultaneous development is prudent and provides the best opportunity to maximize our resources.

Yes, despite the vast knowledge of our grannies, the mother woman dem, the roots man, and a lot of work by scientists like Dr. Henry Lowe, the Jamaican nutraceutical industry is just now getting off the ground. Better late than never. Jamaica’s biodiversity – apparently we are home to 50% of the world’s recognized medicinal plants and 30% of our plants are endemic – is a distinct and exploitable asset. One that can be sustainably exploited. To be fair, that research into and development of these assets into either a nutraceutical or pharmaceutical industry (preferably both) has been slow isn’t surprising. R&D takes time and money. Did I mention that it takes time? And it requires an understanding that time is needed. I recall sharing my love of research with an eminent Jamaican who responded, “But you know that research is the first department to go!” Gee, thanks. Then I was just turned off and scared, now I recognize the shortsightedness of that reality. (Side note: encouragement goes a long way and need not mean one is unrealistic just that one is honest. It’s an art, apparently.) Anyway, I know that the right public private partnerships R&D to support nutraceutical and pharmaceutical industries in Jamaica is possible. And yes, I advocate simultaneous development of the industries. Not only would we build upon the skills of our scientists but I see this as a way to use our oral traditions and folklore in a 21st century way. There are countless, “When me was a bway or likkle girl…” stories that could hold valuable clues about plants we see every day. Plants we take for granted. Additionally, pharmaceutical applications of herbal or nutraceutical remedies can address treatment and dosage needs for some patients and their diseases.

There is no need to repeat past mistakes of having others recognize the value of our natural resources and culture, exploiting those resources and culture, and reaping the benefits…while we are on the sidelines only able to say “But dat nuh grow ah Jamaica?” No. We should be able to say that it grows in, was researched in, and was made in Jamaica. Brand Jamaica 2.0. Take ownership.

Protect your work *whistles and looks around*

Which brings me to an important point: intellectual property rights. A HUGE component for the formation of any nutraceutical or pharmaceutical industry in Jamaica MUST be patent rights, licensing, regulation, and research ownership. M-U-S-T. IP rights are, for better or worse, an incentive for creators, thinkers, business people, and scientists to continue creating, thinking, funding, and researching. The GOJ must take a close look at the country’s patent laws and regulatory framework and the Jamaican population needs a radical cultural awakening to the importance of IP rights and ownership. The former is a necessary institutional framework, part of the support I think Dr. Delgoda et al need for developing and successfully commercializing the industry. Ideally the patent framework would not be so rigid as to scare people off but be protective enough to provide sufficient incentive for investors and scientists. Who will own the research? Who owns the formulas? For how long? Who will own the plants? Can the plants be removed from Jamaica? If so, under what conditions? If not, how to justify and enforce?

As with any business, predictability is important because of its effect on transaction costs and, ultimately, the “bottom line.” Why would any business fund a project where there is uncertainty surrounding the ownership of the results of the project? Risk is acceptable stupidity is not. A legal framework is critical for addressing this business need. Regulation means also that some agency will accredit the findings of the research for, to use the widely accepted U.S. FDA rubric, safety and effectiveness. Jamaica Bureau of Standards? I’d say no. The Scientific Research Counsel? Likely. A hybrid or combination of the two? Even better. Whatever it is, it must be science-based. Will the agency be in the Ministry of Health? Ministry of Technology? Ministry of Agriculture? For that matter, developing a regulatory framework in Jamaica that takes into account (and, hopefully, improves upon) the frameworks in the U.S. and Europe is important. Both markets would be among our targets, no?

A cultural awakening for Jamaicans is necessary for ensuring compliance with and enforcement of laws. Frankly, we generally do not respect other people’s real (actual) property well so the task of educating about intellectual property could be a difficult one. But it is necessary. Again, this is something that investors will assess as they decide whether to fund or not. And it also should be an important consideration for the GOJ who needs to ensure efficient use of scarce resources. It cannot afford to waste the bulk of its resources tracking down counterfeit products. Sure, that’ll be a part of its functions but it cannot be the bulk or the industries will be too threatened.

I’m excited about these possibilities. I think that they can become successful realities. But I am not interested in the “green” or “organic” hype. I am interested in proper management and thoughtful, careful, unselfish long term planning necessary to develop and sustain two important science-based industries.

*sips ginger tea*

p.s. please share your own or your families home remedies in the comments!

5 Responses to “Of Nutraceuticals and Pharmaceuticals…Healing Plants”
  1. Great article CJ!

    There’s supposed to be a conference/trade show at U Tech this month on this topic.

  2. When I was at home in Feb, I saw this article http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/Promise-kept—Dr-Henry-Lowe-launches-nutraceutical-industry-with-7-products_10869398 and got so excited! Hoping that the conditions for nurturing the nutraceutical business will evolve (laws protecting intellectual property & patents, etc).

  3. gocharms says:

    Once, walking in my grandparents’ yard in Portland, my mother reached down and pulled a plant out of the earth and said “eat this”. Without hesitation I did. After a few chews I asked “what is this?” . It was leaf of life. She was accustomed to having it as a supplement. It was her Centrum. It showed two things: I trusted my mother implicitly and also goodness is all around us but we don’t know where to look.

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