Home to over 7000 medicinal plants, India boasts of a traditional medicine system that is one of the oldest and most diverse in the world. In recent years, there has been a rise in the popularity of natural, plant-based medicines over synthetic, modern medicine and therapy. For example, pomegranate extracts have been found to help treat inflammatory bowel disease, and Bandicoot berry extracts are effective against prostate cancer. Adding to this growing interest is a recent study published in the journal ‘American Chemical Society Omega’ (ACS Omega) that has created an antidiabetic medicine using extracts from Withania coagulans, commonly known as the Indian Rennet or paneer dodi.
Traditional systems of medicine, like Ayurveda, use a variety of plant-based medicines to treat many ailments. In India, it is estimated that 77% of the households use ayurvedic medicines, and the industry is growing at an unprecedented rate.
"With better healthcare treatments across the globe, there is now a shift in paradigm to place greater emphasis on alternative medicine rather than therapeutics,'' says Dr Joachim Loo from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, who is the lead author of the study.
W. coagulans is a herb shrub native to northwestern India and cultivated in Punjab, Shimla, Rajasthan and parts of Madhya Pradesh. Other than its use in making paneer, it is considered a home remedy for acne and wound healing. The berry extract of the plant causes the secretion of insulin from cells in our body and is widely used in Ayurveda to combat diabetes. So, what interested the researchers to look at this plant? "We endeavoured to prove its efficacy through scientific means to bring greater awareness of the potential benefits of such traditional medicines," answers Dr Loo.
A significant challenge in producing or consuming W. coagulans as a medicine is that its extract cannot withstand the highly acidic conditions in our stomach. It gets digested and destroyed before it can reach the small intestine, where it can get absorbed by our body. Hence, creating a tablet to consume the extract is not feasible. The researchers of the current study have designed a protected delivery system to address this challenge. This system keeps the extract safe from the stomach acids and lets it travel to the small intestine, where it could be absorbed.
The researchers extracted the medicinal compounds from the plant and put them in small nanoparticles made of chitosan—a substance extracted from the shells of shellfish. These nanoparticles were then coated with starch, which would prevent them from being digested by stomach acids.
The researchers fed these capsules to diabetic mice to test their efficacy. The blood sugar levels of the mice were monitored over five days. After this period, they found that the mice experienced a 40% decrease in their sugar levels, and this effect lasted even after they stopped treatment. This observation meant that the researchers had successfully created a way to make W. coagulans medicines that could prevent and manage diabetes.
In a country like India, where people spend more than 500 crore rupees on diabetes medicine and treatment each year, the findings have significant implications. The encapsulating technique developed by the researchers could lead to the creation of a natural tablet that could tackle diabetes.
"The team is looking at scaling its production and possibly distributing this in India soon. We are also looking for industrial and financial partners who share the same vision of bringing such traditional medicine to the Indian community across the world,” signs off Dr Loo.
This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.