The field of genomics fundamentally altered our understanding of human metabolism and the function of every body system. Functional medicine doctors like myself, daily appreciate this fact as we apply these deeper medical truths to our patients which chronic unexplained illnesses. These same methods of genomics also work out useful truths from herbs we use for our patients. In this case, Chinese researchers, wishing to unlock the secrets of Scuttelaria (Skullcap), applied genomics to search for the mechanisms by which the herb produced its beneficial chemicals.
While the conventional world of Western medicine often dismisses the potential for herbal therapies to alleviate disease, Chinese medicine has a well-known history of applying such therapies to human illness. They have found benefits from Skullcap in fighting infections, protecting the liver and brain, as an antioxidant, and even for fighting cancer. One difficulty, however, is that it requires significant horticultural effort and time to grow the plant and harvest the root.
Genomics steps onto the stage when researchers sequenced the herb’s genome searching for the genes which play roles in the production of the active ingredients. Rather than patiently wait for fields of the plan to produce an adequate supply, they hope to engineer other microscopic organisms like bacteria or yeast to facilitate the same production line.
The re-emerging interest in such natural therapies has been attributed to the 2015 Nobel Prize being awarded to Professor You-you for discovering artemesinin’s use in treating malaria. Artemesinin comes from wormwood. While contemporary clinical medicine has been indoctrinated to dismiss if not disdain herbal medicine, the research world rediscovered a passion for understanding what God has sown into nature for our benefit. Even if they don’t appreciate the creator, they know that the long histories of many herbs for various condition suggests powerful chemicals reside within leaves, roots, seeds, and flowers all around us.
With genomic tools at their disposal, researchers hope to not only identify the active compounds, but magnify our ability to produce purer forms of these compounds. Functional doctors like myself look forward to both the renewed appreciation and the potential for more widespread use of such compounds. On the other hand, we often pause as such artificial means of producing single compounds does not always offer the same benefits as the less pure herbal forms. While our genomic abilities are leaping forward, researchers don’t always appreciate that herbal preparations offer more than 1 compound at a time. Often, it is this combination of different active compounds which produces the desired effect rather than a single chemical.
With this renewed interest, I do hope that all of medicine can recognize the contribution of the plant world to human health and restoration of chronic illness. I also hope that we can not only learn to mass produce such powerful natural substances, but we can learn to apply them wisely both as pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals. Remaining open to the best of both conventional and natural approaches to relief of human suffering is what we do at Sanctuary Functional Medicine.
Qing Zhao, Jun Yang, Meng-Ying Cui, Jie Liu, Yumin Fang, Mengxiao Yan, Wenqing Qiu, Huiwen Shang, Zhicheng Xu, Reheman Yidiresi, Jing-Ke Weng, Tomáš Pluskal, Marielle Vigouroux, Burkhard Steuernagel, Yukun Wei, Lei Yang, Yonghong Hu, Xiao-Ya Chen, Cathie Martin. The Reference Genome Sequence of Scutellaria baicalensis Provides Insights into the Evolution of Wogonin Biosynthesis. Molecular Plant, 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.molp.2019.04.002
Thanks to Science Daily
John Innes Centre. “Ancient secrets of medicinal mint.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 April 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190424083358.htm>.