The chemistry of traditional medicine

Behind medicinal plants and their therapeutic use there is something more than traditional and popular knowledge. For years, CONICET scientists have been investigating the chemistry of these plants to discover their active ingredients Kambo Stick.

Phytochemistry studies the compounds present in plants and their properties. Virginia Martino, CONICET researcher at the Institute of Drug Chemistry and Metabolism (IQUIMEFA) works with native medicinal flora, of traditional or popular use.

Together with his team, he studies secondary metabolites produced by plants, compounds whose function is not generally known but which are believed to have therapeutic properties.

“These derivatives interest us from a pharmaceutical point of view because they are active compounds that nature designed with very fine tuning, and they exert a biological activity in the plant, which allows us to think that they can also have an effect on another living being,” explains Martino. .

One of the metabolites they worked with was Psilostachina C, produced by Ambrosia scabra, an asteraceous plant that grows in sandy soils in the north of the province of Buenos Aires. According to their results, Psilostachina C would have activity against Trypanosoma cruzi, the causal agent of Chagas disease.

In traditional medicine there is a record of treatments for the isolated symptoms of Chagas but not to cure the disease. “In the laboratory we look for trypanocidal chemical derivatives in plants of the Asteraceae family, and in fact we found a series of compounds with interesting activity,” says Martino.

For César Catalán, CONICET researcher at the Northwest Chemistry Institute (INQUINOA), not only are a large part of the medicines available on the market of plant origin, “but the majority of the world’s population still uses and depends on of traditional medicines,” he comments.

According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), herbal remedies are the most popular form of traditional medicine. In Western Europe alone they generated 5 billion dollars between 2003 and 2004, while in Brazil profits totaled 160 million dollars in 2007.

Catalán is a specialist in phytochemistry of traditional plants from the Andean area. His job consists of determining the chemical composition to know the bioactive principles and be able to study them individually.

“The case of species of the genus Senecio is interesting because they are widely spread in the arid areas of the north,” says the researcher. Senecio is the plant commonly known as Chachacoma, and in northern Argentina it is used as a traditional therapy for stomach upset and to counteract stomach cramps.

“We believe that this gastric protective and antiulcerant effect is due to its essential oil and a secondary metabolite derived from para-hydroxyacetophenone that the plant produces to protect itself from ultraviolet B radiation,” explains Catalán. According to his results, Chachacoma also has antioxidant properties.

“The use of plants as medicinal agents is very old, even before written history. Today, natural products continue to be an important source of new drugs and medicines: around 55% of the compounds used as anticancer agents and 75% of the drugs used to treat infectious diseases are natural products or semi-synthetic derivatives of these.  highlights Catalán.

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