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Vol. LXV, No. 2
January 18, 2013

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Straus Lecturer Describes Promise in Herbs, Natural Products

Dr. David G.I. Kingston recently delivered the NCCAM Straus Lecture.

Dr. David G.I. Kingston recently delivered the NCCAM Straus Lecture.

Photo: Lisa Helfert

Recently, Dr. David G.I. Kingston delivered the 2012 Stephen E. Straus Lecture in the Science of Complementary Health Therapies, “Natural Products: Drugs for All Reasons and All Seasons.” NCCAM’s lecture series honors its founding director.

Kingston is professor of chemistry and university distinguished professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, director of the Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery and an NIH grantee. Among his achievements are pioneering research on paclitaxel, an anticancer drug derived originally from the yew tree, and on medicinal plants in tropical rainforests.

There are up to 50,000 traditional plant medicines, said Kingston, and worldwide they have a high rate of use. In the United States, the 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that 17.7 percent of Americans used natural products in the year prior to the survey, making them the most-used complementary health approach.

Natural products and their compounds have an important role in drug discovery, Kingston said, and are well suited by their nature to that enterprise. From 1981 to 2010, 34 percent of approved new drugs were either natural products or modifications of them; in anticancer drugs the figure is 43 percent. Current advanced research techniques “allow us to do things today we couldn’t do even 10 years ago,” said Kingston.

In the future, natural products could add—alone and in combination—to established treatments; be aimed at new disease targets, such as the modulation of protein interactions; and offer new hope for treatments for various diseases that are scourges of the developing world but receive little attention in conventional pharmaceutical research. A few examples are malaria, diarrhea and leishmaniasis. “We can impact the world,” Kingston urged.

Safety must be carefully examined, as natural products can have adverse side effects and can interact with other substances such as drugs. Kingston noted that these interactions need much more research.

For the past 15 years, he has led a large cooperative research program, co-funded by NIH, in Madagascar, an island nation off the coast of Africa that has a rich but threatened ecosystem. In an innovative approach, the international cooperative biodiversity group links three goals: drug discovery from plant and marine sources, conservation of biodiversity and economic development of the local area.

An earlier site was Suriname, in South America. Among the program’s effects have been the discovery of new drug leads, creation of new protected areas and several infrastructure improvements.

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