New herb, an old story?

Fagonia cretica (credit Llez via WikiCommons)

It’s a simple line that seems likely to be interpreted in myriad ways and not be the last word.

“Cup of Herbal Tea Could Help Fight Breast Cancer”

Or more specifically

“An Aqueous Extract of Fagonia cretica Induces DNA Damage, Cell Cycle Arrest and Apoptosis in Breast Cancer Cells via FOXO3a and p53 Expression” (open access)

Sometimes in the human study of nature, reporting of scientific experiments can trigger a range of reactions, from wonder and curiosity to playing on deeply held hopes and fears. In the area of medicine and disease particularly so.

This newly reported research was a herb I’d not heard of before, or at least never payed any attention to. There’s more than a life time of plants in the world to ponder and continue to learn about and it does grow on the other side of the world from me. Perhaps some readers are more familiar with it.

The back story on this herb Fagonia however, when I dug a little deeper, echoed many a herb story the world has seen before. Various species of Fagonia seem to be fairly widespread and common plants across semi-arid northern Africa and Southern Europe to Sth central Asia. Linneaus however was apparently able to cultivate some F. cretica in Sweden to add to his collection, which anyone can now see here.

Fagonia cretica – from “The Botanical Magazine; Or, Flower-Garden Displayed”, by William Curtis, 1794

As for many traditional herbal medicines it seems to have been almost completely off the scientific research radar for the most part of the last century, with a more recent flurry of papers such as the one above. Though evidently it is a popular herb for largely impoverished and illiterate or poorly educated people in the area of its occurrence, in this case Pakistan. Where it seems a favoured remedy for gastrointestinal diseases according to this ethnobotanical survey (pdf).

Like so many stories botanical however, there also seems some complexity and taxonomic confusion over which Fagonia species was used or being referred to in different places and these different studies. Does it make any difference in regard to its likely effectiveness as a medicine? Maybe.

Fagonia is a genus of seemingly tough herbs from the Zygophyllaceae with a disjunct distribution in arid to semi-arid regions of the west American coast and right across northern Africa, the Mediterranean islands, Middle East, Horn of Africa and Persian Gulf countries to the NW areas of India and south central Asia. There is reference to F. cretica in the papers above and others, but the Pakistan Flora tells us that this species doesn’t actually grow there. Apparently there has been some confusion in the past but F. cretica is limited to African and the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions. So the flora suggests that references to F. cretica from the sub-continent region really refer to F. indica or particularly its variety schweinfurthii with trifoliate leaves like F. cretica.

There are now very recent papers reporting extracts from both of these species as being active against cancer cells, the one above and this one – “A novel steroidal saponin glycoside from Fagonia indica induces cell-selective apoptosis or necrosis in cancer cells”.

There are a few other papers on the constituents of Fagonia and it seems there could be a range of different saponins produced from different species or locations, with either steroidal or triterpene glycosides. This class of plant constituent often occurs as a very complex mix and in this case there might be variation in the profiles even within individual species.

Plants, or semi-synthetic derivatives of their constituents, have provided many of the currently used anti-cancer drugs (vincristine, vinblastine, paclitaxel and others), but it is rarely a straightforward situation. Aside from the potential complexity of the chemistry and biological action involved, that will likely take many years of varied experiments to identify and even more to understand. The path from traditional herb to pharmaceutical can be complex in the cultural, economic and ecological spheres as well.

The conventional pharma model would see further isolation of the ‘active’ constituent, in this case it seems unlikely to be cheaply and easily made by synthesis. Then packaging as a pharmaceutical. After many years and millions of dollars of research and trials, a treatment just may come out of it. Though given the way of pharmaceutical interests, all of this seems unlikely to develop without someone getting some sort of IP interest in it somehow. This is also likely to ignore any other constituents and traditional preparations, aiming for a purified extract, or synthetically altered derivative.

The populations who know and use the herb, perhaps originally because they have few other affordable or effective options, are not likely to see much benefit from any development as a pharmaceutical. Or much recognition of their prior art in having knowledge of the herb as a medicine. Fagonia seems cosmopolitan and distributed across a range of countries and cultures, there seems no natural monopoly for anyone in it. There have been some cases of other plants from the sub-continent being the subject of court cases over patenting for medicines or foods. The development of the Indian Traditional Knowledge Digital Library was to counter patents based on traditional use by publishing the prior herbal knowledge online.  Fagonia gets a mention there in a dozen or so traditional formulations there.

Meanwhile anyone directly or indirectly confronted with a cancer diagnosis is obviously wondering if it could prove an answer for them or their loved ones. It is likely there will be some interest and perhaps some trying to capitalise on that. Sudden rushes of interest can drive demand before true knowledge and understanding, even threatening rare species.

At least in this case it seems Fagonia is not rare, growing across a wide area of otherwise arid to semi-arid land it also seems less likely to be as threatened by human activities as many other herbs. If anything it might be one those tough adaptive plants that has or will expand from human disturbance, particularly with increased aridity.

A long history of human use suggests traditional preparations (tea) are reasonably safe.  Though issues around risks associated with identification, natural variation, adulteration or contamination for the average urbanised person wanting to get hold of some for themselves are likely to pass most people by. In terms of understanding these issues in Fagonia, there seems quite some way to go. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if those otherwise older illiterate or uneducated people of Pakistan and elsewhere actually had a pretty thorough working knowledge and experience of this plant in their local area.

The path from folk medicine to pharmaceutical is often a long and rocky one. Though this is also where the majority of modern drugs have come from directly, or by derivation. For many in the world though, the traditional use and availability of herbal medicines as a component of their local flora has been or is a necessary aspect of survival.

We’ll see if anything further develops.

Fagonia cretica (credit Llez via WikiCommons)

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This entry was posted in Botany, Ethnopharmacology, Herbal Medicine and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to New herb, an old story?

  1. Pingback: Tea Extract from Pakistan May Help Treat Breast Cancer | Green Prophet

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