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,Ó 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.
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