Canterbury Uni investigating 400 year-old text for proof of neglected but effective plant-based medicines

Image: Sandra Clair
Researchers at University of Canterbury are exploring a Renaissance medico-pharmaceutical text that might hold the key to a range of modern-day health problems.

The research revolves around a 1500 page, 400 year old Materia Medica – book of collected knowledge about medicinal plants – written by German Renaissance pharmacist, physician and botanist Theodorus Jacobus Tabernaemontanus.

The book is the most comprehensive German language encyclopaedia on plant medicine of the early modern era.

The painstaking work is being carried out in the School of Health Sciences at Canterbury by PhD student Sandra Clair.

“The 16th century work was written over a period of 36 years at the peak of European plant-based medicine by Theodorus Jacobus Tabernaemontanus, who systematically recorded the scholarship of physicians and local healers from antiquity to the early modern era,” Clair says.

“He describes more than 3000 medicinal plants and their preparations which represents a much larger therapeutic repertoire than in today’s official international list of medicinal drugs.”

Clair says that the author’s scientific approach, systematic arrangement of monographs and its comprehensive cataloguing of herbal therapeutics and ailments could serve as a means of validating the effectiveness of certain historically-used plant-based medicines.

“It will highlight historic indications of selected plants over several centuries and further compare them with the latest biomedical research in order to validate the rational of traditional practice,” says Clair.

Using traditional medical knowledge for therapeutic use and drug discovery has been successful in the past, says Clair, and can be a fruitful approach for the ‘rediscovery’ of disregarded but effective medicines. 

“The compounding of the antibiotic substance Penicillin was first recorded by Benedictine monks in the eighth century and the recent recreation of a thousand-year-old medieval remedy for eye infections proved effective against the antibiotic resistant superbug staph infections,” she says.

“We’re validating how plants were used in the past and the current understanding of those plants and looking at the mechanism of those plats and how they work, because it’s all still relevant today. In the past this was mainstream. It really has a role to play in modern medicine and we can validate these traditional applications through this research.”

Clair says that the historical record around many of the medicines referenced in the text proves their efficacy, with physicians having administered, observed and recorded the results of their own trials, in the 400 years since the book was written.

“We’ve gone through literally hundreds of medical textbooks from History, looking for proof of consistent use, because that’s proof of efficacy,” says Clair. “Then we look at the other side – the modern clinical trials – and see what they tell us. Do they match up? The modern trials can then confirm the efficacy of the traditional, historical use.”

“The goal here is to say: If we have consistent evidence of a plant-based medicine working over time then that is of equal standing to randomised control trials.”

And even though still in the early stages of research, Clair says positive results are already becoming apparent.

“I have identified a promising Renaissance recipe to treat open injuries. It contains antimicrobial and nerve regenerating ingredients and warrants further investigation. We are not exactly sure yet why the ancient potion is so effective,” Clair says.

The research is being supervised by the School of Health Sciences Associate Professor Ray Kirk and Professor Dr Med Reinhard Saller from the University Hospital Zürich in Switzerland.

The first draft of the research is due for completion at the end of 2016.