While the popularity of and expenditures for herbal therapies (aka “ethnomedicines”) have increased globally in recent years, their efficacy, safety, mechanisms of action, potential as novel therapeutic agents, cost-effectiveness, or lack thereof, remain poorly defined and controversial. Moreover, published clinical trials evaluating the efficacy of herbal therapies have rightfully been criticized, post hoc, for their lack of quality assurance and reproducibility of study materials, as well as a lack of demonstration of plausible mechanisms and dosing effects. In short, clinical botanical investigations have suffered from the lack of a cohesive research strategy which draws on the expertise of all relevant specialties.
With this as background, US and Chinese co-investigators with expertise in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), botany, chemistry and drug discovery, have jointly established a prototype library consisting of 202 authenticated medicinal plant and fungal species that collectively represent the therapeutic content of the majority of all commonly prescribed TCM herbal prescriptions. Currently housed at Harvard University, the library consists of duplicate or triplicate kilogram quantities of each authenticated and processed species, as well as “detanninized” extracts and sub-fractions of each mother extract. Each species has been collected at 2–3 sites, each separated geographically by hundreds of miles, with precise GPS documentation, and authenticated visually and chemically prior to testing for heavy metals and/or pesticides contamination. An explicit decision process has been developed whereby samples with the least contamination were selected to undergo ethanol extraction and HPLC sub-fractionation in preparation for high throughput screening across a broad array of biological targets including cancer biology targets. As envisioned, the subfractions in this artisan collection of authenticated medicinal plants will be tested for biological activity individually and in combinations (i.e., “complex mixtures”) consistent with traditional ethnomedical practice.
This manuscript summarizes the rationale, methods and preliminary “proof of principle” for the establishment of this prototype, authenticated medicinal plant library. It is hoped that these methods will foster scientific discoveries with therapeutic potential and enhance efforts to systematically evaluate commonly used herbal therapies worldwide.