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Prescriptions for herbs?

New technology could make it possible

December 4, 1996

From Correspondent Eugenia Halsey


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Some people believe plants have mystical powers. Some say they can heal. And others simply love the fragrance, taste and history of herbs.

But many Americans still don't trust them, because they are largely unregulated by the government and have been associated with some deaths.

Herbs sold as dietary supplements are put through the same rigorous testing required of drugs, and brands vary widely in the amount of active ingredients they contain. Now, researchers have come up with a way to give consumers more confidence in herbs.

Scientists at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, working with World Health Organization (WHO) group, and Pharmaprint, a California company, have figured out how to identify the active ingredients in herbs. So herbal medicines can be made in a consistent manner and then patented, clinically tested, and prescribed by doctors the way conventional drugs are.

"It'll add another dimension if you like to what's available for doctors to use with reliable scientific evidence," said Dr. Ralph Edwards of the WHO Collaborating Center.


Pharmaprint is seeking approval of a prescription drug version of mistletoe. The natural medicine has been used in Europe to boost immunity in AIDS patients.

But not all mistletoe works. "It makes a difference what type of mistletoe you use, the time of the year it's harvested, whether you use the berries, the leaves, the twigs," explained Dr. Clive Taylor of the University of Southern California School of Medicine.

Now, Pharmaprint says a pharmaceutical version of mistletoe would be more reliable.

"There's a lot of the public-- the figures are 90 percent-- that don't take herbals, said Elliot Friedman of Pharmaprint." They would rather take a pharmaceutical that's been approved by the FDA and given under a doctor's guidance."


Pharmaprint says its prescription herbs would probably cost more than those sold in health food stores, but less than conventional drugs, and would be more available for reimbursement by health insurance companies.

Officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say prescription herbs sound promising.

"If there is a way to patent certain herbs, then there would be an incentive to do clinical studies and that would give us information which would be good," said Bill Schultze of the FDA.

But the FDA says most herbs would continue to be available without a prescription, so consumers need to understand those products still are not tested the way conventional drugs are.

Related sites:

  • Herbs and Spices in the Italian Kitchen
    A list, in both Italian and English, of spices and how to use them in preparing Italian dishes

  • Herban Revival
    An article from the National Restaurant Association about the resurgence of herbs in fine dining

  • Herbs & Spices
    Virtually endless site includes historical and geographical information, as well as reference sources and tips on growing your own herbs

  • Herbs, Spices & Condiments
    A list of links to small mail-order herb shops, the McCormick Company and other seasonings providers

  • Spices and Herbs for the Home Garden
    Some tips are solely for those in New Mexico, but offers an informative guide to herbs and how to grow them wherever you may be
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