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back to article Chinese 'Thunder God' plant could crush cancer

Scientists believe a plant used for centuries in Chinese medicine may offer a cure for the pancreatic cancer that afflicted Apple talisman Steve Jobs and many others worldwide each year. Boffins from University of Minnesota’s Masonic Cancer Center have been testing Minnelide, a drug extracted from the lei gong ten or ‘thunder …

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Unhappy

Kind of ironic

That Steve Jobs died because he tried alternative treatments and waited too long to go with Western medicine, when a few years later Western medicine's cure may be taking a pill made from a plant used for many years in alternate treatments!

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Boffin

Re: Kind of ironic

Not really ironic as the comparison doesn't stack up.

What do you think the chances were, before this conventional study, that if you visited a Chinese Herbalist with pancreatic cancer they'd have given you this. It only says it was used in Chinese medicine, not that it was specifically used to cure pancreatic cancer. Furthermore, what do you think the chances are that it would have been offered in the same format that is apparently, though not proven yet, working in mice. Which also may not work in humans.

I'd guess the chances all round that you'd have got anything efficacious out of the herbalist would have been slim to none.

If anything good comes of the research then it will be a victory for evidence-based medicine.

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Re: Kind of ironic

Not really.

Plants are known to contain various organic compounds and it is fairly common practice to extract these from plants, test them and set about synthesising the ones that work in much greater quantities and purity.

The big advantage here is that the resulting compounds are actually known to work (we may even know how they work) and have a supporting body of evidence to prove it. It's not based on anecdote and hearsay, which is all you generally have for herbalism.

Also note, this plant was used to treat auto-immune problems not pancreatic cancer.

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Re: Kind of ironic

Lots of medicines use organic compounds either refined from a plant / animal or synthesized. I'm not sure the fact that some plant has been used in chinese medicine for some other purpose means much in itself.

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Pint

Re: Kind of ironic

To roughly quote Tim Minchin...

What do you call alternative medicine that has been found to work?

-Medicine.

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Re: Kind of ironic

The compound on trial won't be the exact same compound extracted from the vine, it will have been modified to give greater potency and fewer side effects.

The compound found in the vine may be only moderately effective and present in trace amounts, it also might only be active if injected.

So going to see the 'herb man' who grinds up a few bits and pieces into a tea probably wouldn't do you any good.

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I get wanting alternative treatments for some things as a last resort, or if others just don't work. For instance I cannot get rid of colds, but I've found echinacea works for me quite well. But I only found that because after 2 months of no change I tried the alternative. It's a gamble treatment.

Going "hmm theres a 90% chance the standard treatment will cure me, and 10% the alternative will... I'll go for the alternative"

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The placebo is strong in this one. Although to be fair, unlike a lot of other alternative hippy-crap, herbalism at least has a fighting chance of delivering an active compound(s).

Got a headache? Chew on some willow bark. Which we still do today. Except we've taken the active compound, figured out how to synthesise it and now deliver it in handy pill form. Much easier than dragging a small forest around with you. :)

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"Got a headache? Chew on some willow bark. Which we still do today. Except we've taken the active compound, figured out how to synthesise it and now deliver it in handy pill form. Much easier than dragging a small forest around with you. :)"

Close. Salicylic acid from willow bark reduces inflammation and reduces pain, but it plays hell with the digestive tract, acetylsalicylic acid, AKA Aspirin, was developed from studying salicylic acid, and though it is still rough on the stomach, it's much gentler than its natural parent.

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@Captain

Aye, sorry about that. I over simplified things for the moon-unit brigade who seem to be living in fear of the Lizard People (or whatever the latest conspiracy theory is, I can never keep up).

You more complete explanation is a great example of why evidence-based medicine works. "This does a thing we like, but also something we don't. Can we make it better?" But, of course, the better item is "artificial" and clearly a plot by the Lizard People to hide the Truth of the Ancients from us! Or whatever.

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Vic
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> The placebo is strong in this one

The placebo is strong in most things.

I was reading an interesting article on drug trials a while back, which explained that proving medical efficacy was usually not difficult for a drug; the tricky bit was proving it was statistically better than a placebo.

Vic.

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Anonymous Coward

The Main Difference

The main difference between conventional/Western and other forms of medicine is that the former has benefited from decades of double blind trials, peer review and strict government regulation. It is probably a good idea then to try the former first, and if that fails then by all means try the latter.

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Re: The Main Difference

It's simply evidence based medicine Vs bullshit. And usually bullshit that is only going to affect your wallet.

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Boffin

Re: The Main Difference

"decades of double blind trials, peer review " etc etc

In the main that's true, but there's one thing that I can't understand about modern drug trials, and that's the way they treat the placebo effect as if it were simply an error in their stats, when it really is a measurable effect. Saying a sugar pill is 'just a placebo' is ignoring an actually quite amazing thing, which is that many humans can heal themselves just by the power of thought. And this is not some new-age happy-clappy fairy dust, it is a REAL effect that keeps on getting proven in every single drug trial that has ever been held. PLUS it has no side-effects while many real drugs have a whole list of side-effects that is sometimes scary to read.

I guess there's no money in studying why and how some people are curing themselves just by thinking that they're being cured, and finding ways to replicate that consciously.

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Re: The Main Difference

"I guess there's no money in studying why and how some people are curing themselves just by thinking that they're being cured, and finding ways to replicate that consciously."

So how do you explain the studies into the placebo effect then? And the nocebo. And the fact it doesn't always work - the placebo effect isn't going to mend your broken bones for example.

The reason drugs are expected to exceed the placebo effect is so that we can be sure the drug actually does something. That the drug, in and of itself, made a difference. That means getting over the "noise" of the placebo effect.

You posts really do make you sound like a conspiracy nut.

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Re: The Main Difference

"The reason drugs are expected to exceed the placebo effect is so that we can be sure the drug actually does something. That the drug, in and of itself, made a difference" - I am fully aware of that, my point is that sometimes drugs are not necessary and a sugar pill can have the same result. Now clearly it's not the sugar pill that brought about the result, it was the thought of healing that caused the healing.

"how do you explain the studies into the placebo effect then?" - Studies into the placebo effect are made to find out how to better cancel out the effect in drug trials. I am not aware of any studies of the placebo effect whose purpose was to attempt to consciously replicate the placebo effect. To give an example, if I know that some people can cure themselves of a headache when given a sugar pill, maybe I can find a way for curing headaches that does not involve giving drugs. Maybe I can even find a way that I can teach people to consciously cure their headaches with a thought. If you are aware of any such study, please say.

" the placebo effect isn't going to mend your broken bones for example" - drugs don't mend broken bones either

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Re: The Main Difference

I suggest you go do some reading, the placebo may not be as all powerful as it seems.

Here's a good starting point: http://www.skepdic.com/placebo.html (then there's always Wikipedia)

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Re: The Main Difference

@TheBig Yin

Thanks for the link, I did find it extremely informative. It seems that even in fairly recent studies there's a range of results from ineffective (Hróbjartsson and Götzsche ) to rather effective (Pollo).

It seems that, as I thought, a lot more study is required to really understand them, and contraray to what I thought, there is actually a lot of work being done in the field.

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You say plant extract

I say magic

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N2
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Good news

Lets hope it works & is available soon

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No big shock really

The cure for Maleria came from a Chinese traditional remedy thanks to Chairman Mao! And the west spent years trying to duplicate it, and we still can't create it artificially..

Chinese medicine benefits from thousands of years of experimentation!

I bet there are thousands of cures just waiting in Chinese Traditional Medicine!

Congrats scientists!

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Re: No big shock really

"Chinese medicine benefits from thousands of years of experimentation!"

Really? Really, really? Dried seahorse has evidence to support its use? Which journal was that published in? And tiger bits etc?

I think you meant to say "Chinese medicine benefits from thousands of years of random quackery!"

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Re: No big shock really

The problem... is discounting all traditional medicines just because a few sound outlandish.

Many work, many do not, but all should be investigated individually.

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Re: No big shock really

All? Far from it.

Those that have been shown to have an effect in a properly conducted double-blind trial should be investigated (i.e. greater than placebo). There rest should be ignored.

The amount of support fake medicine gets (even from our own NHS) is depressing.

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Re: No big shock really

That double-blind trial is part of the investigation. My point was that they should all be given the benefit of the doubt and receive said double-blind trial, then go on from there. The seahorses mentioned earlier, just like many plants, may contain some unknown nutrient/chemical/hormone that works miracles.

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Re: No big shock really

This is what a lot of companies already do. They also discount a lot of the moon-unit "treatments" (like crystal healing etc) as they usually contravene major parts of modern scientific knowledge, or have been sown to fail in previous studies (actual, proper studies; not shams conducted by the moon-unit brigade).

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Re: No big shock really

"Really? Really, really? Dried seahorse has evidence to support its use? Which journal was that published in? And tiger bits etc?"

Don't knock tiger wang until you've tried it

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Anonymous Coward

Minnesota’s Masonic Cancer Center

interesting name there, nevertheless, good luck to them. And I seriously mean it, I wish every genuine effort for cancer cure all the best.

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At the risk of sounding like one of the anti-"big pharma" loony posse, the problem with stuff like this is that the drug companies actually have no interest in selling a quick cure to you - they'd rather sell you a treatment that you'll need for a few years until you eventually pop your clogs.

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Trollface

Monsanto?

I wonder if they've patented the DNA of the plant yet?

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@Dan Price - I agree, economically it's better for pharma companies to come up with drugs that treat the symptoms and leave the underlying disease untouched, it's a similair economic model to selling printers / shavers etc cheap and making money off the ink / blades etc.

If hypothetically a researcher finds out that a plant they're studying can cure cancer, it doesn't involve complicated exctraction process so it's not patentable, and the plant can grow in a regular greenhouse. I suspect that their bosses would balk at killing a multi-trillion dollar industry at a stroke, and would rather coat the active ingredient in a mumbo-jumbo of other stuff and patent the whole complicated shebang and make billions off it.

Of course this is all theoretical, but it's not unimaginable that it can happen.

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@Dan Price

Except that the research will be peer-reviewed by academics and scientists from other companies who might well notice that the product doesn't actually cure anything or if you are only testing a 'treatment' they might think they can ruin your market by coming up with a cure.

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Company 1 : We have a thing that resolves the symptoms. We'll make beeeeeellions!

Company 2 : We have a thing that fixes the actual problem. We'll make beeeeeellions!

Company 1: Rats.

And that, in a nutshell, is how it works. No need for nutty "Big Pharma" conspiracy theories. If there is collusion, we have laws to deal with that. They may not be great and they should maybe be wielded a bit more often, but that is a general societal issue to do with greed, short-termism and spineless politicos.

Even if it did come from a basic plant, the active ingredient would still require refinement because the dose the plant can give is probably rather small. Even if the plant did give a high enough dose, it would still need refinement because of all the potential contaminants. Even if the active ingredient was delivered in a pure enough form, it would still be studied as it could lead to a new class of drugs. So what I'm saying is, they'd still make it and they'd still profit from it.

For example: acetylsalicylic acid. You can get that from willow bark easily enough and yet we still get tablets of the stuff don't we?

Or, you know, maybe there really is a conspiracy all run by the Lizard People and I am just a shill for them. They don't want you to know, man, they don't want you to know!

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Bad news for endangered species

Those advocating chinese medicine might want to spare a thought for the rhinos, tigers and other endangered species who often die so that parts of their bodies can be used by chinese quacks.

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Re: Bad news for endangered species

Chinese traditional medicine doesn't just involve animal bits, acupuncture, pressure puncture are just a few that have already been adopted by western medicine.

In terms of thousands of years of quackery, sure but isn't that the case with most things? Herbal medicines can work and not because of placebo, and the reason why is because they are medicines. Whilst western medicine likes to isolate a single active ingredient and make it into a pill, these plants can have hundreds of active ingredients in them.

Whilst modern medicine (western, eastern, whatever), now is restricted in the way it can test, these traditional medicines have had thousands of years of human testing. It is hard to separate snake oil (which actually is Chinese and very good for you), from real medicines, but sufferers of bad skin problems for whom steroids, UV treatments and other icky things don't work, find that a cup of real foul tasting tea does wonders.

So rather then dismissing traditional medicines as quackery, wouldn't it be better to adopt it as actual medicine and ensure that it undergoes the same rigorous testing?

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Re: Bad news for endangered species

There is no such thing as "Western medicine" or "Eastern medicine" or whatever, there is simply "evidence-based medicine" and "bullshit".

"acupuncture, pressure puncture are just a few that have already been adopted by western medicine."

Well, apart from the fact that evidence-based medicine has shown "real" acupuncture to be no better than placebo acupuncture. i.e. it's bullshit. For certain ailments it may be possible to get a greater than placebo effect, but it will still have nothing to do with re-aligning chakras or restoring chi flow or whatever. It'll be because of an actual physiological response that and be studied, understood and then used with actual, real, evidence-based knowledge.

"these traditional medicines have had thousands of years of human testing."

Oh wow, so they had properly conducted double-blind trials did they? Wrote it all up in peer reviewed journals? Eventually figured out the mechanism by which the active ingredients worked (and a mechanism that doesn't contradict the rest of known science)? Excuse me if I call crap on their "testing". Or do you still drill a hole in your head when you are ill to release the demons? That had years of human testing too.

"So rather then dismissing traditional medicines as quackery, wouldn't it be better to adopt it as actual medicine and ensure that it undergoes the same rigorous testing?"

No, it wouldn't. For the simple reason that after it has been studied, shown to work in a proper tests/trials, been refined etc we tend to just call it MEDICINE.

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Re: Bad news for endangered species

"evidence-based medicine has shown "real" acupuncture to be no better than placebo acupuncture."

The real question though, is whether real acupuncture and / or placebo acupuncture are better than no acupuncture at all. If they ARE better than no acupuncture, then I suggest that a health researcher's job is to find out by what mechanism the acupuncture IS working and see if they can replicate that, instead of ignoring it (or calling it bullshit) because it isn't better than a placebo.

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Re: Bad news for endangered species

"The real question though, is whether real acupuncture and / or placebo acupuncture are better than no acupuncture at all"

No it isn't. Any intervention will have an effect, either placebo or nocebo. Acupuncture is an intervention and will have an effect. Due to how acupuncture is usually presented, it will probably be placebo. Even talking to someone has an effect. Cheer them up, they feel better; "Laughter is the best medicine" as they say.

This does not mean that you can speak magic words that heal people. It's the placebo effect again!

"If they ARE better than no acupuncture"

See above. They would have to be better than placebo. Also, we'd have to have some idea what was going on. It's not going to be chi, chakras or any of that. That is all bullshit.

"find out by what mechanism the acupuncture IS working"

It probably isn't, it's probably placebo.

"instead of ignoring it (or calling it bullshit) because it isn't better than a placebo"

It claims to operate by a mechanism that is unknown to modern science, does not seem to have a theoretical model which can be tested and has been shown to be no better than a placebo. Looks like bullshit, smells like bullshit and you know what? It's probably bullshit.

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Re: Bad news for endangered species

@BigYin

You should have been Health Minister instead of the current twonk. Keep up the good work.

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Re: Bad news for endangered species

My point is more about aggressive dismissal such as the kind you are showing, rather then keeping an open mind and investigating with modern techniques.

Currently before human trials can even begin a lot of money and research has to be carried out, so some cures may be missed. If uneducated camel riders realised that rubbing the mould from saddles onto their sores helped, just because it was not tested in a scientific way doesn't make it quackery. One form of quackery IMHO is the absolute belief that only one method, or thing is right (kinda like religion) which personally I think science isn't about.

Rather then dismissing experiences from the past just because they don't fulfil your requirements, I was advocating investigating it.

In 100 years time who knows they might be laughing at your comments and techniques the same way as you are doing of others!

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Re: Bad news for endangered species

"My point is more about aggressive dismissal such as the kind you are showing, rather then keeping an open mind and investigating with modern techniques."

I have an open mind, just not so open that my brains fall out. Some alt-med is bullshit and should be dismissed as such. It's the same with many things, some ideas are just so outlandish that they can and should be ignored. Until, of course, actual evidence shows up (see below).

"If uneducated camel riders realised that rubbing the mould from saddles onto their sores helped, just because it was not tested in a scientific way doesn't make it quackery."

That makes it anecdote. When people start to claim that it'll cure cancer or whatever (and that does happen) that makes it quackery. When the claims that underpin the "cure" seem to be at odds with the general understanding of science that that too is probably quackery until proven otherwise (see below) .

In your above example two questions arise. Is is the mould or the rubbing? If one of the other, why? Let's say it's the mould. What are the active compounds? Why do they work? Can they be purified/synthesised? Are there other chemicals that might do something similar? What are the risks? Can it cause infection or an allergic reaction? Answer all that and not only will you have a range of treatments for saddle sore, but probably all sorts of leisons. And that is why we need the evidence. Not hearsay.

"One form of quackery IMHO is the absolute belief that only one method, or thing is right (kinda like religion) which personally I think science isn't about."

But there is only one method, and it is brutally simple: does the evidence support the theory? End of discussion. Actual science requires evidence, testable theories etc. And, of course, science will change its mind when new evidence arises. Unlike religion. Science is "right" because it has the evidence to back it up. It even has the evidence to back-up its evidence! That's all that matters. Evidence.

"In 100 years time who knows they might be laughing at your comments and techniques the same way as you are doing of others!"

Maybe. And you know what? We'll have the evidence for why things changed. But I can guarantee you that we will still have drugs companies and we will not be inserting magic quantum crystals up our butts. Or any other quack alt-med you care to pick.

And one final point. Just because one extract from one herb that happens to be used in Traditional Chinese Medicine does not validate the entirety of Traditional Chinese Medicine or any other ingredients they may happen to use. Why? Because there is not evidence. And when there is evidence we will no longer call it "Traditional Chinese Medicine" but just "medicine".

It really is that simple.

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Re: Bad news for endangered species

Minor typo: I said "Some alt-med is bullshit".

What I meant to say was: "Most alt-med is bullshit".

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Meh

Re: Bad news for endangered species

"Any intervention will have an effect"

So if an intervention has a positive effect, if you understand how the effect works you call it "treatment", and if you don't understand how the effect works you call it "placebo"?

As per the link you sent me earlier, the full extent of how the placebo effect works is not yet fully understood, and a lot of different mechanisms seem to be lumped under the same 'placebo' heading, whether they are understood or not.

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Re: Bad news for endangered species

"So if an intervention has a positive effect, if you understand how the effect works you call it "treatment", and if you don't understand how the effect works you call it "placebo"?"

Ignoring the minor straw-man you've inserted, you are either being deliberately obtuse or have some axe to grind.

We do something to Group A. We do something to Group B. We do nothing to Group C. Groups A and B show a difference, for the better (just for the sake of argument) compare to Group C.

The difference of Group A and B to Group C is roughly equivalent (confidence level etc etc).

We know for a fact that what we did to Group B was fake because that's how we set it up.

Therefore whatever we did to Group A is no batter than the fake (i.e. the placebo) and is not of any use. Scratch that off the list, try the next thing.

This is obviously grossly trivialised.

But wait....what the heck happened in Group B if it was fake? Maybe it's psychological. Maybe it is some actual chemical change caused by being "treated". Maybe it's pixies. From my current understanding - no one is quite sure, but we know it happens so we have to allow for it. For relative values of "know" (see link)

"As per the link you sent me earlier, the full extent of how the placebo effect works is not yet fully understood, and a lot of different mechanisms seem to be lumped under the same 'placebo' heading, whether they are understood or not."

So what? We don't understand it yet, so why should we try to separate it? All we know is that placebo/nocebo has nothing to do with whatever we are testing. So if whatever we test is no better than placebo, it's as useless as makes no odds.

I'm struggling to understand why you seem to be convinced there is something "other" going on.

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Coat

"However, his death is thought to have been hastened by his initial decision to seek alternative treatments and refusal for nine months to undergo surgery as advised by doctors. " -- You're treating that wrong! Sorry bad taste, got my coat.

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Anonymous Coward

My Mother in Law has pancreatic cancer. If this treatment proves viable in humans, then it will probably be too late for her, but at least in future people wont have to go through as much suffering as she has.

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Now the centre will patent the active compound and serve notice on 200,000 Chinese herbalists for patent infringement

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Bulls*t?

I'm not quite sure I follow the logic that goes from:

'Plant used in herbal medicine may help treat cancer'

To

'Herbal medicine is bullshit'

One has to assume that herbal medicine traditionally (when it was 'alternative' only in the sense that the only other alternative was remaining ill/dying) must have been based on good old empirical scientific observation. As in:

1/ Take a guess at what's wrong

2/ Administer herb

3/Observe whether they get better or not

It's actually not far removed from the methodology adopted by the average GP

That seems scientific enough to me although obviously limited by lack of analytical tools. Admittedly, relying on such methods when you have a potentially fatal illness and when other alternatives exist seems wilfully stupid but there you go

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Devil

Why does "Medicine" use "Synthetics" instead of direct extracts?

The "medical industry" has no financial interest in a cure, only in money.

The answer is strictly financial, you cannot patent the plant extract, only the synthetic version. No conspiracy neccessary just the truth.

However, you can patent the PROCESS for extracting the active ingredient if it has never been done before or if there is a special technique required.

You will find that the efficacy of the synthetics may not even be as good as the natural extracts are. Also note that the chemical formulation of many drugs closely resemble that of the natural extract but are usually shifted; stereo isomers or "mirror images" of the natural material for no other reason that they can be patented.

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