The Roots of Drug Discovery: Traditional and Complementary Medicine

Drug DiscoveryYour doctor hands you the prescribed medicine. You choke the red liquid down and hope that it will help you. Extensive evidence backs the medicine, and it is documented to treat your symptoms. He tells you the name: Dragon’s Blood. He instructs you to drink it three times a day, and your symptoms should disappear.

Dragon’s Blood is a deep red resin extracted from Dracaena cochinchinensis, or “Yunnan Dragon’s Blood.” Since the first century AD, Dragon’s Blood, an herb used in traditional medicine in many cultures, has been used to treat inflammation, stomach ulcers, and more. Research shows that certain resin components induce activities in the body that are current therapy methods for neurodegenerative diseases. The components that cause these effects are being investigated as possible therapeutic agents for neurodegenerative disorders.

Drug discovery is a complex process that requires intense laboratory and clinical testing. One major strategy for drug discovery is utilizing the already-existing medical knowledge base in traditional and alternative medicine. The World Health Organization defines traditional medicine as “the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.

Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM) conducts many clinical drug trials, including drugs intended to treat hyperlipidemia, diabetes, depression, and more. Aside from a strictly medical perspective, however, students in many fields find interest in drug discovery traditional medicine, from those involved in anthropology to those involved in pre-health studies.

Traditional medicine is  practiced across the globe, and countries often use methods originating from other geographical areas as well. Although many forms of traditional and complementary medicine exist around the world, one major contributor to the pharmaceutical industry is Ayurveda, a form of traditional Indian medicine.

Ayurveda has been used to diagnose and treat disease since 1000 BC. Recently, Ayurveda and other forms of traditional medicine have become increasingly popular as a holistic alternative to patient treatment. Ayurvedic knowledge provides detailed descriptions about the use of more than 1500 herbs as well as a diagnosis system for more than 5000 signs and symptoms. Using this methodical and well-documented healthcare system provides many opportunities for bioprospecting, or the search for clinically useful molecules in microorganisms, fungi and plants. Compounds extracted from herbs used in traditional medicine have a relatively safer usage than many other drugs, as they have been used for years. Many promising new discoveries have arisen through Ayurveda, some of which are summarized in Table 1.

The World Health Organization (WHO) published a traditional medicine strategy in 2013 that will extend from 2014-2023. The plan highlights the three major strategies for approaching traditional medicine. First, WHO suggests that member states construct national policies recognizing the potential of traditional medicine. Second, that they create safe, proper and effective forms of traditional medicine through regulation and development of the existing sources. Finally, that they integrate traditional health care systems with conventional systems to promote universal health coverage. The World Health Organization’s report on traditional medicine attests to its importance and potential in our world today as both a source of new medicinal drugs and a relatively low-cost solution to certain public health issues.

Increased regulation of drug development has caused a rise in the price of newly discovered drugs and longer development times due to safety risks. Traditional and alternative medicine provide sources of information that researchers have been utilizing to develop treatments for many diseases. Traditional medicine can provide useful and innovative drugs, and it remains advantageous despite the seeming prevalence of conventional or westernized medicine. Traditional medicine has not been forgotten yet.

Table 1: Ayurvedic Plants and their Proposed Uses

Plant in Ayurveda

Treatment and Use

How can it work?


Rauwolfia serpentina


Control nerve impulses in the heart and blood vessels to lower blood pressure.




Used with UV light for repigmentation.


Holarrhena alkaloids


The bark of this plant has proven useful in decreasing symptoms.

Velvet Bean

Mucuna pruriens

Parkinson’s disease/spermatogenic loss

M. pruriens cotyledon powder acts as a neurorestorative and controls the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. M. pruriens regulates apoptosis in germ cells.


Phyllanthus amarus

Antiviral/ Jaundice

Decreases the oxidative stress in the liver.


Withania somnifera


Bioactive withanolides can enhance apoptosis and inhibit invasion and generation of osteoclasts, cells that resorb bone.

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