Around 20 % of the 750,000 plants counted on the surface of the planet, are in danger of disappearing over the next thirty years. In southern countries, this accelerated erosion of biodiversity could have a dramatic and brutal impact, involving the disappearance of numerous potential medicines, and the traditional know-how associated with them. Together with local partners (universities and NGOs), the pharmacognosy department of the University of Liège is attempting to tap into this cultural and biological heritage, for the benefit of local communities. Its main objective is the fight against malaria (paludism).
Some well-known drugs, occurring naturally, are Taxol, and its derivatives which are extracted from the yew tree, used in the treatment of cancer, quinine, extracted from the cinchona, and still used in the treatment of malaria, or morphine, extracted from the poppy, and which is the most widely used analgesic drug in the world. Lesser known examples are the extracts from the perforated St. John’s wort, used in treatment of various forms of depression, vincristine and vinblastine, obtained from the Madagascar periwinkle, and used particularly in the treatment of certain forms of leukaemia, and artemisinin, extracted from the Chinese plant Artemisia annua, and now recommended by the WHO as a front-line treatment for malaria. But at some point in the future, if the results of research at the University of Liège are confirmed, the therapeutic value of other little-known plants such as Dicoma tomentosa, Fagara chalybea, and Strychnos usambarensis, will also be acknowledged in the fight against malaria.
The pharmacognosy unit of the pharmacology department of the University of Liège takes a keen interest in natural substances, medicinal plants, and the ancestral traditions associated with them. «In the eighties and nineties, the pharmaceutical companies diverted their attention away from this discipline. The formidable progress made possible by combinatorial chemistry in particular, seemed to create the belief that an in-depth knowledge of plants was no longer needed. Today there has been something of a u-turn in this respect. It is widely accepted that this ‘oversight’ only served to diminish therapeutic options. The chemical structures found in nature cannot always be replicated by chemical synthesis», explains Michel Frédérich, senior research fellow at the FNRS.