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“R&D” Versus Research and Development of Skullcap Root

Chinese skull cap

Skull Cap. Photo by Denis [flickr.com/65640806@N02] under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Pharmaceutical companies employ scientists to look deep into the chemistry of plants. They do this not only to identify “active ingredients” but also to find ways to mimic nature and synthesize new drugs.

The value of these new drugs is arguable. For while they address specific symptoms, they also present serious side effects—some acutely fatal; others chronically debilitating.

Another contentious area is the economics of drug development. Patented drugs are no doubt expensive, and now pharmaceutical companies routinely file patent extensions to maintain their monopoly.

If a generic drug can offer the same effect as the brand name, then why obstruct access to it? Since the majority of prescription drugs are derived from natural plant sources, why not stick to the use of plants themselves as is the case in herbal medicine? These are questions not only of economics but also of ethics.

The Pharma reasoning is that the high cost of drugs allows the companies to recoup the cost of research and development (R&D). The public consensus is that research is good because it broadens our knowledge, and knowledge serves the community. But service to the community comes at a price: the cost of developing the products of research.

That’s fair. However, the public and the pharmaceutical corporations are at odds because this is not a break-even corporate venture but rather a profit-driven one. Granted, motivation by profit is not inherently evil. For capitalism is what allows us to enjoy our current standard of living. But the common sense question is: why follow this specific commercial venture when nature has already developed its own medicine?

But for the sake of argument, let’s say 100% of us agree that nature is already perfect, and that medicine it does provide. There is still potential for greed, under the guise of “standardization,” i.e. the premise that we need to control nature (through synthesis) in order to ensure uniform quality.

So whether driven by R&D or Quality Control, the only way to profit (largely) from the investment is to maintain intellectual rights to the final product. This is done through a patent. But one cannot patent anything that occurs naturally, thus reinforcing the incentive to tweak nature. The un-natural result of tweaking is patentable.

Does nature really produce its own medicine? A positive answer is supported by the practice of herbal medicine.

Yet I still subscribe to R&D and quality control. The difference being that I like to use research to develop new ways of combining herbs (still natural!) rather than new synthetic drugs. And quality control of herbs is currently achieved through eco-logical cultivation, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), HP-TLC and HPLC analysis, heavy metals testing, microbial testing, and organoleptic inspection.

That being said, I found the recent scientific research on the Chinese herb, huang qin, to be interesting.

Huang qin (skullcap root) is used in Chinese medicine to clear heat and dry dampness, meaning that it is anti-inflammatory, antipyretic (lowers fevers) and antimicrobial. It can also be used in cases of threatened miscarriage (usually combined with other herbs).

The research helped identify how skullcap produces the phytochemicals called flavones. In other research, flavones have demonstrated anti-cancer properties. While I am not looking to synthesize flavones, this research reminded me to consider Huang Qin as a potential herb for use in formulas for integrative cancer treatment (Huang Qin Tang is just one example).

But this is just a thought, since flavones are found in many plant sources, including tea.

Carl Balingit is a former engineer who applies rational thought to the often subjective nature of traditional healing. He practices acupuncture in San Diego, CA.

He also prescribes Chinese herbal formulas. The herbs do not necessarily come from China.

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