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Des sources du savoir aux médicaments du futur

Jacques Fleurentin
Jean-Marie Pelt
Guy Mazars

Objectives and introduction

Jacques Fleurentin

Texte intégral

1This publication is the result of interdisciplinary co-operation and in depth research work carried out by active members of the French and European Societies of Ethnopharmacology in the past 13 years. On the occasion of the Fourth International Conference organised in Metz, France, we have explored new avenues of research and suggested new leads for scientific research.

2Following our commitment to promote the development of ethnopharmacology all over the world, the first few years of activity have been devoted to developing co-operative work between the humanities and the various branches of biology, and implementing modern tools for experimentation designed to confirm or adjust the knowledge and art of traditional practitioners. We were very surprised to observe that lab experimentation could confirm the value of tradition for three quarters of the plants tested with animals or cellular models.

3The publication presented has three main sections: the origin of traditional, the development of pharmacopoeias, and the medicines of the 21 st Century.

4The impressive relevance of traditional knowledge has caused researchers to start a quest for the origin of such expertise. For that purpose, we can identify two distinct geographical areas: the areas influenced by scholarly written traditions and the areas where oral tradition is predominant..

5The areas influenced by a tradition of knowledge transmission in writing have developed pharmacopoeias in the course of the last two millennia. In this respect, we can refer to several scholarly works, such as De Materia Medica by the Greek Dioscorides (1 st century A.D.) , the Treatise of Simple Medicines by the Arab Ibn el Beithar, the Carakasamthâ from India (2nd century A.D.), and the works produced in China - in particular Shen Nong Ben Cao (5th century). The historians of sciences have described the progress and development of this knowledge and reported about it in works ranging from Antiquity to the beginning of the Christian era.

6But investigating medical practice in Pharaonic Egypt or Mesopotamia, on the basis of documents on papyrus and clay tablets, we can prove that this development started as far back as 3 000 B. C.

7What kind of practices did man have before the invention of writing? The question will be examined by specialists of Pre-history: how did the pre-historical men treat themselves? what kind of information does the examination of bones, coprolithes and pollen provide for a better understanding of the kind of diseases and the remedies used by the descendants of Homo Sapiens? Did the first human beings notice that sick animals look for herbal medicines?

8It was observed that there are striking similarities between human and animal practice in such areas as the use of anti-parasite medicines. Research is currently under way concerning self-medication by animals and we should pay attention to the way wild animals transmit acquired knowledge.

9In societies where oral tradition is prevalent, knowledge is generally transmitted in the way of prolonged training provided by a traditional practitioner or a shaman. The mode of transmission and comprehension is then generally much more complex, in the absence of written documents.

10It appears clearly that knowledge is then handed down mostly along a vertical path, from one generation to the next, but there are obviously other modes of transmission deserving attention.

11Interpreting dreams and performing rituals induced by hallucinogenic or psychotropic drugs in African and American-lndian societies are common practice in daily life and enrich the myths handed down from generation to generation. The shaman ensures proper balance within society and represents a link between the visible and the invisible worlds.

12The stage of sleep called paradoxical because of dreaming plays a major role in the process of consolidating memory; we may therefore infer that sleeping and dreaming can be ways to have access to specific knowledge hidden under the lower strata of un- and pre-consciousness. Can dreams, trance and meditation be keys opening up unexplored avenues of knowledge?

13The enormous amount of knowledge in traditional societies could provide valuable information for the development of medicine in the third millennium and we can expect that a better understanding of traditional pharmacopoeias, their development and their mode of transmission, and the new light shed by the progress made in pharmacology, chemistry, toxicology and clinical science, will help us re-establish the position of herbal medicines among the therapies to be applied in the future. The new specifications will be defined in the framework of official regulations that will be laid down in the next few years and channel the development of such drugs.

14In the Southern nations, where access to modern health care system is often limited, ethnopharmacology represents a solution as it can offer herbal medicines embedded in the native cultural environment and meeting all applicable standards concerning the level of toxicity and the degree of "biological" efficacy. Research is also carried out in the field of veterinary medicine as the cattle breeders in the Southern countries are looking for efficacious herbal medicines to cure their livestock. The perspectives of eco-development will have to take into account the provisions of the Washington Convention on threatened species and the Rio Convention on the maintenance of biodiversity and the right of all nations to have the benefit of their own resources. This development with a return to natural and on-field practice is an illustration of what can be called 'applied' ethnopharmacology, with a sense of commitment to achieve sustainable development and respect for traditional knowledge..

15In the Northern nations, demand for herbal medicines is expected to grow at a regular pace, as shown by the steady development of medicinal plants in France in the past 25 years: consumption has risen from 12,500 m. tons in 1970 to 37,500 in 1996. In this country, plant-based preparations can be marketed in the form of herbal medicines (plant-based drugs) or functional food products; the terms sometimes refer to the same plants, but in different packaging, submitted to different legislation and offering various degrees of quality rating. The food processing industry is gradually trying to promote products for "health-conscious" people in the form of medicines which are improperly termed in French "nutraceutics" or "food complements". The French legislation is rather ambiguous in the respect and we hope that EU lawmakers will lay down clearer legal provisions, as marketing policies and - even more so - investment in basic and applied research is heavily dependent on such legislation. The pharmaceutical industry is absolutely essential for a development of herbal medicines. We can observe in this respect that German universities are deeply involved in the clinical evaluation of such herbal medicinal products.

16In the past two millennia, China has found ways to adapt traditional medicine to modern standards: traditional medicine is now part of the syllabus in 27 universities; it is widely used in 2,500 hospitals, thus covering 25% of needs in rural areas and 10% in urban areas. This should set an example... and we should think of ways to extend the benefit of such achievements to other areas.

17This is why a Franco-Chinese expert committee is currently working on the elicitation of methods to survey the plants in the Chinese pharmacopoeia, with a view to assessing their quality and innocuousness.

18The purpose of this publication is to provide clues to scientists in the whole world and help them identify new avenues for research in the field of the pre-history of drugs, for a better understanding of the way knowledge is acquired and then transmitted, and for the development of non-toxic herbal medicines for administration to human and animal beings.

© IRD Éditions, 2002

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