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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Use of Latin Drug Names

This story is reprinted in its entirety from the May/June 2002 issue of the hardcopy edition of "Leung's Chinese Herb News". In it, Dr. Leung lays out a simple solution to the complex problem of improper identification of herbal materials used in traditional medicine. -ed

Most of this problem of nonspecific definition of herbal materials can be alleviated, if not eliminated, by returning to the use of Latin pharmaceutical names. I don't know why this fell out of favor during the past few decades in the United States. Could it be because we have been sidetracked by pursuing active principles during this time and found it no longer necessary to specifically name the plant part? After all, as long as one can obtain, say, ephedrine from an Ephedra species, what does one care which part of the plant it comes from? And for that matter, which plant species yields it?

However, natural medicines have recently made a comeback and are here to stay. Unfortunately, most modern scientists trained in botany and pharmacognosy have no training and experience in the practice of traditional herbal medicine. They may be excellent botanists or phytochemists, but they don't have the relevant comprehensive training and knowledge to deal with herbal medicines except using them as raw material sources for pharmacologically active chemicals.

The most relevant modern field appears to be ethnobotany, pioneered by the late Dr. Richard Evans Schultes. Since most of the research and subjects in this field relate to jungle medicines, it is imperative to be able to return to the same location and collect the same plant material, should preliminary chemical and pharmacological results indicate it to be promising as a modern pharmaceutical agent, hence the 'voucher specimen', deposited in a reputable herbarium. This system was pioneered by Dr. Schultes, and, for the past four to five decades, has served us well as the gold standard in phytochemical research. However, this system does not address the needs of traditional herbal medicines of the Old World, such as China and India where the resources of herbal medicines are well documented and a single plant species often supplies two or more drugs that are sometimes very different, or different plant species supplying the same drug. This Latin-binomial-and-voucher-specimen system can only serve as one of several elements for defining a particular herbal drug.

Consequently, in the current scientific research in the validity of traditional herbal medicines, just assigning an herbal drug a Latin binomial and depositing a voucher specimen of the plant in an herbarium is not enough and often is not even relevant. We must specify clearly from what part of the plant and how it has been prepared. It appears that we are the only major country in the world which does not use Latin pharmaceutical names. China does, and so does Germany. It's time we realized the importance of plant parts in modern CAM research and relearned Latin drug names and started to use them in our research and in this field.

More of Dr. Leung's observations and opinions are available from the volumes of Dr. Leung’s newsletter, of the same name as this blog (Leung’s Chinese Herb News). This newsletter was published and sent to subscribers (most were industry-insiders) from 1996 to 2004. The collected works now serve as an excellent reference work, created with Dr. Leung’s frank, honest opinions and down-to-earth communication style.

For more information about Dr. Leung and his writings, visit www.earthpower.com. To order the newsletter containing the article above, visit the bookstore, click “Buy Now” on the newsletter, and select Issue # 38 from the drop down list.

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