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domingo, 21 de abril 2019
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Rainforest pharmacy - Medicine from the Amazon

A team of researchers at Universidad de Antioquia are studying medicinal plants to treat malaria used for centuries by indigenous people from Vaupés, Colombia. The study aims at narrowing the gap between traditional and scientific knowledge.

Legend has it that clay pots containing the spirit of a debilitating and deadly disease layed in the bottom of a river in the tropical rainforest of Vaupes, Colombia. One day, an indigenous wiseman broke the pots, releasing spirits that began to contaminate water, plants, animals and food, thus making people sick.

This is how biologist Otoniel Ramírez tells the story of the origins of malaria according to the Cubeo indigenous people of Vaupes, the indigenous community to which he belongs.

Malaria is one of the most lethal infectious diseases in the world, which mainly affects people living in warm, humid areas. This disease is caused by single-celled parasites of the genus Plasmodium and is transmitted by female mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles. The parasites grow and multiply in the liver cells before invading the erythrocytes (red blood cells). After two weeks, the parasites destroy red cells leading to reduced oxygen content in the cells which results in severe infection and even death. 

Although at first sight traditional and scientific knowledge seem to be opposed, modern science is increasingly turning its attention towards antimalarial treatments used for centuries by indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest. A study conducted by the UdeA Malaria Research Group and the UdeA Herbarium aims to use ethnobotanical knowledge for the benefit of the community.       


The Cubeo people’s extensive knowledge of malaria seems to be at risk since young people are less and less interested in learning the language and ancestral knowledge of this indigenous community. Driven by his interest in preserving ancestral knowledge and encouraged by the sages of his community, Otoniel Ramírez pursued a bachelor’s degree in Biology at Universidad de Antioquia.  

During his thesis, Ramírez conducted research on medicinal plants used by Cubeo people. “During my Master’s Thesis I learned how these plants are harvested and used to treat a number of diseases. I documented several types of plants that have proven to be effective against malaria, especially those that grow all year round. This is particularly important since malaria can occur at any time and there are specific preparations to treat this disease,” Ramírez said.  

On the other hand, researchers from the Malaria Research Group evaluated the antiplasmodial (the ability to block malaria parasite) and cytotoxic (the quality of being toxic to cells) activity of these plants. “Extracts of 35 plants used by traditional healers of 12 indigenous communities of the Vaupes region were tested for their effectiveness against malaria. It was a big surprise for us when we discovered that some extracts exhibited antimalarial properties higher than those of chloroquine, a medication used to protect against the disease,” says Dr. Adriana Pabón, a member of the Malaria Research Group.

Since its inception in 1990, the Malaria Research Group at Universidad de Antioquia has been focused on the search for antimalarials from medicinal plants.

A new study is using local plant species belonging to the same family of species native to the Vaupes region. “In this study we selected local plant species from the same family of those used by the Cubeo people. The results showed that these plants have antiplasmodial properties similar to those found in endemic plant species,” Dr. Pabón said.

The study involves the use of different concentrations of plant extracts or molecules isolated from plants which are introduced into in-vitro cultures of Plasmodium falciparum parasites (which cause the most dangerous form of malaria). In order to evaluate antiplasmodial effectiveness it is necessary to determine the amount required to kill 50 percent of the parasites in the sample. The extracts were also evaluated for cytotoxicity to find out if they can damage infected cells.

The results are promising since 5 percent of the plants exhibited high antimalarial activity, and the vast majority (about 85%) had no cytotoxic effects. Researchers say that ethnobotany could become a major source of new drugs against malaria. These findings have encouraged the Malaria Research Group to embark on a large-scale project to develop new plant-based antimalarial drugs. 

The Malaria Group researchers said the aim of the study was to evaluate the properties of plant extracts rather than measuring their effectiveness. “Although we know that these plants have proven to be effective against malaria, we wanted to perform laboratory tests on the antimalarial effect of certain plant extracts”, Dr. Pabón said.   

It is important to note that the Cubeo people use antimalarial plants in combination with traditional rituals. “The treatment combines rituals and prayers, therefore firm conclusions cannot be drawn without having all that in mind,” says Otoniel Ramírez. On the other hand, a booklet containing the results of the study will be delivered to the Cubeo indigenous people.

Simply put, traditional science is increasingly turning its attention towards the development of plant-based antimalarials and other drugs that are more efficient that conventional drugs but with less or no harmful side effects. Undoubtedly, tropical rainforests stand as an inexhaustible source of knowledge.

Related article: Antiplasmodial and Cytotoxic Activity of Raw Plant Extracts as Reported by Knowledgeable Indigenous People of the Amazon Region (Vaupés Medio in Colombia).

Sistema Único de Información de Trámites - SUIT
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