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Searching historical herbal texts for potential new drugs

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 21 December 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:1314
  1. Eric J Buenz, ethnobotanist1,
  2. Brent A Bauer, director, complementary and integrative medicine programme1,
  3. Holly E Johnson, botanist2,
  4. Gaugau Tavana, botanist2,
  5. Eric M Beekman, professor of Germanic languages3,
  6. Kristi L Frank, graduate student1,
  7. Charles L Howe, doctor of infectious diseases1
  1. 1Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, MN 55905, USA
  2. 2Institute for Ethnomedicine, National Tropical Botanical Gardens, Kalaheo, HI, USA
  3. 3University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, USA
  1. Correspondence to: E J Buenz buenz{at}
  • Accepted 10 March 2006

Historical herbal texts provide a window for resurrecting lost knowledge, and “mining” of these texts can lead to the identification of new drugs

The medicinal uses of plants have been described in herbal texts for thousands of years.1 This documentation is fortunate, as knowledge of traditional medicine is continually lost, and such knowledge is useful for the discovery of new drugs. Here we show that a treatment for dysentery, identified by “mining” a 400 year old Dutch text on herbal medicines, has antibacterial effects that are specific to the part of the plant described in the historical text.

The search

We used a novel semantic bioinformatics tool2 to search the text of the Ambonese Herbal, which was written nearly 400 years ago by G E Rumphius, an employee of the Dutch East Indies Company. In this text he described the medicinal uses of plants on the island of Ambon in Indonesia. Our search identified the kernels of the atun tree (fig 1) as a potential source of an antibacterial or antimotility compound.2 3 About the atun tree he wrote, “... 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.”4

Fig 1 Images from …

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