For thousands of years, and throughout the world, people have used plants to help control pain and cure disease. Healthy Herbie is a person-shaped bed that displays a selection of temperate-climate plants used to produce drugs for licensed use.
Where practical, plants are located close to the part of the body they are used to treat. Healthy Herbie’s hair, for example, is an unruly stand of willow. The bark of willow is rich in salicylic acid and the ancient Egyptians are recorded as having used willow to treat inflammatory conditions. Extracts of salicin were first used in controlled drug trials in 1874 when Dr Thomas MacLagan used it to treat patients with rheumatic fever. It was adopted as the template for Aspirin, launched in 1899. Researchers are still discovering wide-ranging new uses for this very versatile drug.
The search for more effective drugs continues, as new forms of disease evolve and methods for treating them become more specialised, and plants can play a vital role in research programmes. Plants grown as medicinal crops are harvested and the required compound extracted and refined under controlled conditions. Chinese Wormwood (Artemisia annua), for example, which self-seeds happily on Healthy Herbie, is a feathery-leaved plant in the family Compositae that grows rapidly to harvestable maturity. It yields the chemical Artemisin, which is used as an alternative to quinine in areas where malaria has become resistant to quinine-based drugs.
Plants are frequently used as starting points, or templates, for the design of synthetic compounds that are modelled on the plant extract. Mass-producing a synthetic compound eliminates the natural variation found in plant extracts. The variability makes it difficult to achieve rigorous quality control standards necessary in drug manufacture.
Close to Healthy Herbie is Herbie’s Dinner! This is a large plate of ‘functional food’ plants. It is clear that it is essential to our health to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, and functional foods are those identified as being especially rich in compounds that help our bodies resist diseases. For example, vegetables in the cabbage family are rich in chemicals known as glucosinolates; these help protect from cancers, especially those of the colon.