The therapeutic potential of herbs has been well recognized by various indigenous systems of medicine. Besides their therapeutic use, herbs are disease preventors and also used as cosmetics, dietary supplements and for reducing obesity. The priority of developed countries is different from that of developing countries in relation to medicinal plants. Developed countries are looking for leads to develop drugs from medicinal plants, while developing countries would like to have cheap herbal formulations as these countries cannot afford the long path of drug discovery using pure compounds. The indigenous system of medicine is officially recognised in India. The government funds education on this system, reimburses the cost of treatment by this system, and approves drugs based on Ayurvedic formulations.
About one-fourth of the drugs approved during the period 1981-2002 was either natural products or based on natural products . Despite the ups and downs in funding for drug discovery from medicinal plants, new drugs that are in the pipeline for approval by the US FDA include morphine-6-glucoronide (a derivative of morphine with fewer side effects than morphine), vinflunine (a modification of vinblas-tine for cancer), exatecan (an analogue of camptothecin for cancer) and calanolide A (a dipyranocoumarin from Calophyllum lanigerarum var anstrocoriaceum, an anti-HIV drug).
Drug discovery from medicinal plants has traditionally been lengthier and more complicated than other drug discovery methods. As a result, many pharmaceutical companies have reduced their efforts and funding for natural-product research. Overexploitation of medicinal plants in developing countries needs proper attention to conserve biodiversity while at the same time catering to the needs of herbal drugs by sustainable utilization and production. Current research in drug discovery from medicinal plants involves a multidisciplinary approach combining botanical, phy-tochemical, biological and molecular techniques. There is a need to improve technology for the rapid isolation of active compounds in large quantities for evaluation with the scientific collection of plant material and maintenance of biodiversity. It is also desirable to have collaborative work with profit-sharing agreements between leading institutes, pharmaceutical companies of developed countries, and organizations in developing countries where most medicinal plants are still unexplored.
Acknowledgements Research on medicinal plants in the laboratory is supported by funds from the UGC-DRS programme and the DST-FIST programme.
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