Available online 19 January 2015
Food and medicine: Old traditions, novel opportunities
Since ancient times people have been observing nature carefully and were able to find plants for food, medicine, clothes, shelter and fuel in their direct environment. This process still continues and is now known as bioprospecting. Particularly in biotechnology and in the development of medicines there have been quite some activities in finding novel products from nature. Particularly in the past years interests in exploring nature has increased in an endeavor to make our presence and activities in this world more sustainable. Much of the industrial bioprospecting is based on fast screening methods for e.g. a pharmacological effect or an enzyme activity. These methods are very efficient and in some molecular based bioassays all plants of the world could probably be screened in just a few days. But at the same time it becomes clear from basic research that human health is very complex and that it is not likely that a single molecule will be able to cure diseases which often have multifactorial causes. Obviously infectious and parasitic diseases might be cured by single compounds, as it concerns exogenous organisms that invade the body. Though in that case development of drug-resistance of these organisms is becoming a major problem.
Health is a complex, but robust state of the body. It is determined by external factors (the environment), genetic factors and age. The homeostasis, typical for health, is maintained as well as affected by food and medicines. Prevention and controlling risk factors are important aspects in keeping homeostasis. With the rapid development of centralized food preparation and fast food, old traditions and common knowledge of “what to eat when” are disappearing. The fast spreading of, for example, diabetes type 2 and obesitas are signs that we should look for novel approaches to stay healthy and reach the 125 years of age that some experts predict as being feasible for humans. Besides basic research on health and diseases, we may return to the knowledge of our ancestors as a valuable resource of tens of thousands years of observations of nature and human health. The personalized medicine is, for example, an interesting approach. The remark of Allen Roses (Anonymous, 2014), vice-president of genetics at GlaxoSmithKline: “The vast majority of drugs – more than 90 per cent – only work in 30 or 50 per cent of the people” shows that a personalized treatment also in western pharmacotherapy might be of interest. Apparently the number game of screening large numbers of compounds to find novel leads for drug development results in medicines that for many users do not work.
Considering the present problems to develop methods for prevention and novel treatments of diseases I am very happy with this interesting special issue series of international experts give a historical, cultural and scientific background to food, medicinal, or ritual (usually affecting the CNS) plants. Reading the various papers in this issue will be a source of inspiration and new ideas for future research. Our ancestors found important plants like poppy and cannabis; a number of plants containing caffeine; and plants containing alkaloids with a curare effect, without the aid of any of our …scopy and …omics tools, just by common sense and observations made by their own senses. With all the scientific knowledge and tools we have now really great perspectives for discovering novel information concerning the role of food and medicinal plants for our health by starting from what our ancestors already discovered.
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