Scientific proof of herb-based medicines the basis of a new business venture
Plants have a history of millions of years in fighting bacteria and viruses which seek to exploit them as a host.
These plants have evolved a multitude of defences to stop, stymie and slowdown infection by microscopic agents (which themselves are constantly evolving to thwart such deterrence).
Many medicines were originally compounds found in plants - aspirin’s precursor was originally found in willow leaves for example and used for over 2,500 years as a pain reliever. The ancient Egyptians used poppy seeds in wine for the same purpose (an early precedent of morphine).
However the study of the use of herbs (and concentrated versions of their active ingredients) as medicine has taken a back seat over the past 70-80 years for a number of reasons.
- No one can patent a herb, which prevents ownership of the end product and has created a reluctance to invest in the research and development required to prove a plant’s efficacy
- An (often undeserved) flower power/lunatic association between herbs as medicine and the practitioners of what is often considered more folklaw(fo) than science
- Most screening libraries for new medicines focus primarily on single active constituents which has reduced the amount of research into complex botanical medicines despite their potential. For example artemisinin from the dried leaf of Artemisia annua is 40x better absorbed with no toxicity compared to purified artemisinin found in pharmaceutical drugs (Weathers, 2014).
These are challenges that a Technology Valley (Tirohanga-based) mother, post-graduate clinical researcher with a Masters in Innovation & Commercialisation, and entrepreneur at Wellington Victoria University’s ‘The Atom’ faces.
Expatriotic Dutchwoman Cynthia Hunefeld is on a mission and business-building journey to both prove and market herb-based medicines to fight disease and illness.
In particular she’s seeking scientifically-validated alternatives to antibiotics, and with it the growing scourge of antibiotic resistance.
Cynthia’s demonstrated proof-of-concept efficacy of an antimicrobial plant extract (which by necessity needs to remain undisclosed at the moment) in the laboratory, and which has been validated by dozens of worldwide research papers.
She’s now embarking on additional tests,and is seeking both private investor and community/government funding to carry out human trials.
Urinary tract infection
The first HerbScience target is a herb-derived active ingredient for urinary tract infection - a bacterial infection that globally affects over 150 million people a year.
“In human trials you need to be able to satisfy two requirements,” says Cynthia.
“A doctor needs to know it will work, and so does the patient as the end consumer.
“As an extract with antimicrobial properties, it's not just one active ingredient that is at work, but in our test product’s case up to ten actions.”
Cynthia says she’s used to people poo-pooing the ability of herbs to be part of modern medicine’s toolkit, “and that’s why I’ve taught myself to reference all that I say what herbs and their extracts are capable of.”
“What I want to do is connect tradition to science.
“Something they teach you in entrepreneurship is to have a Minimum Viable Product.
“What I want is a Minimum Lovable Product - something taken by people because it has been shown to work and people trust that it does.”
She says she could put a herb-based supplement onto health store shelves tomorrow. Anyone with a few dollars can make a product that 90% of the time has no proven test results.
“A huge problem with most herb-based products is there’s much more focus on marketing than there is on research,” she says.
“It’s no wonder people don’t trust herbs as such, or say they don’t work.”
This is why her research has concentrated on the phyto-pharmacology, extraction methods that provide sufficient levels of active constituents, real data and validated research from around the world to prove some of her product’s potential,
“But human trials are the gold standard when you’re applying for research funding, and that’s why we’re about to head down that path,” she says.
MedSafe, the medicine regulatory body run by the Ministry of Health has already shown excitement in the data, efficacy and safety shown by HerbScience’s first product she says, which is an important step in producing a standardised medicine that works and that people can trust.
Cynthia says that if and when the human trials prove the antimicrobial plant extract’s effectiveness, HerbScience will “ideally produce a whole product line.”
“We’ll need to establish a sustainable and organic supply chain, sources that adhere to Fair Trade principles,” she says.
“Initially that is more expensive than simply obtaining the herbs from any old supplier, but it can create added value for all parties involved in the long run.”
Cynthia describes her fledgling business as having a two year old Financial Controller and six year old CEO, along with her Digital/Design/Marketing husband.
“One day I want to be able to hand on a thriving company to my son and daughter if they like to be involved. To do that we have to have scientifically-proven products and a sustainable business model right from the start.”