Will the next big drug come from nature?


by Sudhir Ahluwalia | Negosentro.com | The earliest drug discoveries were of organic origin. But soon, the drug industry found it made business sense to shift focus and look for a more stable source. With natural products there were challenges of consistency and reliability of raw materials supply. Chemicals were a better alternative. Soon, these became the main source for all new and existing drugs.

This shift took place in spite of the fact that natural products based nutrition and medicine has a history of over 5000 years. This does not mean, though, that the world’s interest in natural products has in any sense waned.

Dozens of scientists across the globe are working on natural products. High impact scientific journals have numerous papers documenting experiments that present positive and negative effects of natural products on living organisms. Many trials have validated natural product based ancient remedies too. However, most scientific literature has rarely gone beyond animal trials. Cases of human trials that have conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of natural products are too few.

The hunt for natural products based next blockbuster drug continues to evade science. The pharmaceutical industry that has the financial and technical strength has so far not shown much inclination to invest in natural products based research.

Functional foods and products based on natural products have been known to provide effective protection to the body. However, for effective production, these ingredients have to be consumed in sufficiently large quantities. These should also be bioavailable for them to be effective.

Why is the natural products industry so fragmented and full of small companies? Why are big pharmaceutical and healthcare firms unwilling to commit resources into natural products based drug research and development. To get insights and answers to these questions I interacted with clinicians, natural medicine healers, doctors, and industry.

These discussions reveal that there exist reluctance and intellectual disbelief on the other’s product. The conservative mindset of big pharma and the rich neighbor’s attitude to a poor cousin is not helping either. This is nothing surprising or unique to this industry. Behemoth multinationals are great executors and marketers of products and services.

Disruptive advancements and growth in healthcare have come from genomics, biotech and single-molecule producing startups. Once a product has been shown to be promising the startup becomes a target for acquisition. The cycle of innovation and consolidation thus goes on hand in hand.

Clearly the natural products industry requires an innovator and disruptor. To kick start this cycle the industry probably needs big brother pharmaceutical industry encouragement and financial support. But is there interest in such collaboration?

This trend needs to be encouraged and opportunity exploited. Multidisciplinary content providers like Informa group can play an important role in bringing the two major stakeholders in the healthcare space – natural products and pharmaceutical industry providers on a single platform.

Industry associations like the American Herb Products Association and others industry bodies will have to play their part too. Discussions and exchange of ideas between the two will help build bridges and trust.

The world is waiting for the next big discovery in healthcare. It is highly probable that this will come from a natural product. Once that happens, the funding tap will be opened, innovators will jump in and regulators will work overtime to make regulation conform to this next disruption. I am bullish on the future. Each one of us needs to pitch in with our bit to make it happen.

About Sudhir

Sudhir Ahluwalia is a business consultant. He has been management consulting head of Asia’s largest IT outsourcing company Tata Consultancy Services, business advisor to multiple companies, columnist and author of upcoming book on herbs-Holy Herbs. He has been a member of the Indian Forest Service. His webpage is: www.sudhirahluwalia.com

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