Phytomedicine in Cancer Care and Research - Harvard International Phytomedicines Institute

I am excited to say that Africa is at the forefront of bringing other disadvantaged communities together on a world stage to bridge health care gaps.

Harvard’s Global Health Catalyst program was initiated by Dr. Wilfred Ngwa, to bridge the healthcare gap in low- and middle-income countries around the world, through collaborations with more advanced economies. The GHC seeks to engage in high-level conversations and translate them into policy at national, bi-lateral, regional and international levels. 

During the recent Global Health Catalyst Summit, I had the opportunity to chat with government leaders, diplomats, healthcare professionals and advocates from across the world.  Some were seeking new collaborations to help their communities, including representatives from Pakistan and the Pan African Parliament, and Jamaica’s Minister of Commerce, Trade, Animals and Fisheries.

Over the years of the Global Health Catalyst program, international relations have been built through these partnerships.  Growing global collaborations between people interested in cancer care and research has been an important result of the GHC. The program has attracted educational platforms like eCancer, led to the creation of tumor boards, engaged radiation oncologists, neurosurgeons and many other advocates for global cancer care and treatment.

It is not surprising that I recently heard from a GHC collaborator in Germany whose Rotary club has an exchange program for oncology nurses.  He works with solar-powered technology for radiotherapy automation and digitization, and is seeking to build a network of Rotarians to advocate for the creation of a global program to fight cancer in low- and middle-income countries. 

Modern healthcare professionals have recognized the need for holistic health care approaches that incorporate indigenous and multigenerational knowledge, and the Global Health Catalyst is no exception. This year, one of the significant outcomes of the GHC was the launch of the International Phytomedicines Institute, which Dr. Ngwa will tell us more about.

It is worth noting that plant-based medicine is not a new concept. In Africa and other parts of the world, plant-based medicine has for centuries been used to treat tropical diseases and other medical complications. Modern health care professionals are presently applying science to the herbs that have been used for centuries by indigenous communities around the world.
In recent weeks, I have browsed through different books on plant-based or herbal medicine. It has been interesting to learn about the different plants and where they are believed to originate.  These include flaxseed from Egypt, Artichoke leaf from  Mediterranean Southern Europe and the Canary Islands (Leung and Foster, 1996), Ephedra from south Asia, Chamomile Flower from southern and eastern Europe and northern and western Asia, and Cayenne pepper from tropical America. 

This list is just the tip of the iceberg of the many plants we interact with, often without necessarily recognizing their health benefits. It is interesting to read about the chemistry and pharmacology of these plants. Of course I am not a scientist, but the fact that there is literature explaining the scientific significance of some of these plants takes us back to the conversation on the significance of indigenous medicine in bridging healthcare gaps.

In a previous episode (, I talked about bridging Africa’s healthcare gaps with ethno-medicine. In my opinion, ethnomedicine and phytomedicine are both terms for indigenous plant-based medicine – the words have changed but the concept is the same. This is medicine that indigenous populations have used for centuries to bring relief to those suffering from different ailments. One could call it indigenous biotechnology.  It is used to resolve health issues that cause social and economic impact to the communities.

Dr. Wilfred Ngwa (left) and Vivian Birchall (Right)

Improving plant-based medicine would help bridge the health care gap, and would also be a catalyst for enabling socio-economic development. Agro-based medicines would not only keep the communities healthy, but also provide markets for the farmers of these plants and catalyze preservation of indigenous plants.  

It makes sense for indigenous health care providers, pharmacologists and medical doctors to collaborate on phytomedicines, to provide additional knowledge through extensive research on formulation, dosages and quality control.  It is important to note that these products should also be reviewed for safety and efficacy by health care regulators, like our Food and Drug Administration or its equivalent in other countries.

Vivian K Birchall

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