Mayo Clinic collaboration mining of ancient herbal text leads to potential new anti-bacterial drug

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- A unique Mayo Clinic collaboration has revived the healing wisdom of Pacific Island cultures by testing a therapeutic plant extract described in a 17th century Dutch herbal text for its anti-bacterial properties. Early results show that extracts from the Atun tree effectively control bacteria that can cause diarrhea, as claimed by naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumpf, circa 1650. He documented his traditional healing methods in the book Ambonese Herbal.

The Mayo Clinic-led team's report appears in the Dec. 23 edition of The British Medical Journal, www.bmj.com. In their report, Mayo Clinic researchers demonstrate the feasibility of using sophisticated data mining techniques on historical texts to identify new drugs.

Significance of the Mayo Clinic Research

The study provides a creative new model for drug discovery. It integrates nontraditional, ancient medical information with advanced technologies to identify promising natural products to investigate as drugs for new and better therapies.

"Natural products are invaluable sources of healing agents -- consider, for example, that aspirin derived originally from willow bark, and the molecular basis of the anti-cancer chemotherapeutic agent TaxolTM was derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. So it's not so far-fetched to think that the contributions of an ancient text and insights from traditional medicine really may impact modern public health," explains Brent Bauer, M.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program.

For thousands of years, people around the world have lived intimately with botanical healing agents and evolved effective healing traditions. "Our work shows just how much we can learn from them. But to make the most of what is fast becoming lost knowledge, we have to respect, preserve and work with traditional healing cultures," adds Eric Buenz, Ph.D., researcher for Minnesota-based BioSciential, LLC.

Ancient Text

Rumpf referred to himself as Rumphius, in the Latinized scientific manner of the day. Rumphius was a German-born naturalist who worked for the Dutch East Indies Company. His book is an account of the herbal healing traditions on the Indonesian island of Ambon. Rumphius' description of Atun kernels' therapeutic properties is what modern medicine calls "antimotility agents," they stop diarrhea. Writes Rumphius: "... these same kernels ... will halt all kinds of diarrhea, but very suddenly, forcefully and powerfully, so that one should use them with care in dysentery cases, because that illness or affliction should not be halted too quickly; and some considered this medicament a great secret, and relied on it completely."

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Authors

Dr. Buenz was formerly an investigator in Mayo Clinic's Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, and is now a private researcher with Minnesota-based BioSciential, LLC. Working with Dr. Bauer, Dr. Buenz went to the Independent State of Samoa in January 2005 and accompanied a shamanistic healer to Atun tree groves. The Atun leaves and nuts Dr. Buenz picked were brought back to Minnesota and analyzed in Mayo Clinic laboratories.

Global involvement

Scientists and others in the Mayo Clinic collaboration included:

  • in the Independent State of Samoa, shamanistic healer.
  • in Rochester, Minn., a Mayo Clinic neuroscientist, a physician, laboratory analysts and a bioinformatics text-mining expert, who oversaw the Mayo Vocabulary Server concept-indexing application to closely examine the text for detailed and relevant information.
  • in Kalaheo, Hawaii, ethnobotanists (persons who study the plant lore of a race or people) at the Institute for Ethnomedicine, National Tropical Botanical Gardens, to validate the correct botanical specimens.
  • in Boston, Mass., experts in technology to digitize the text so names, symptoms or ailments associated with a given plant could be extracted.
  • in New York, N.Y., a botanist at the New York Botanical Gardens to reconcile ancient plant names with modern plant names.
  • in Chicago, Ill., experts using a natural products database to compare the therapeutic plants identified by Rumphius with modern botanical healing agents in use. Plant names found in Rumphius' text -- but not found in the database -- were considered promising leads to investigate.
  • in Amherst, Mass., a professor of Germanic languages who translated the work written in Dutch and Latin by Rumpf (16271702).

Collaboration and Support

Authors also include Kristi Frank and Charles Howe, Ph.D, at Mayo Clinic. Other collaborators include botanists Holly Johnson and Gaugau Tavana, Institute for Ethnomedicine, National Tropical Botanical Gardens, Kalaheo, Hawaii; and E.M. Beekman, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Funding was provided by Mayo Clinic.

NOTE: The report is illustrated with photos taken of prints contained in a rare early version of the Ambonese Herbal, housed in the University of Minnesota's Owen H. Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, Minneapolis, which was published in a six-volume set between 1741 and 1750. Electronic files of the prints are available on request.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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