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Drug Developers Take a Second Look at Herbal Medicines

Desperate to develop new drugs for malaria and other ailments, researchers are running clinical trials with traditional herbal medicines—and generating promising leads

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The tall Fulani woman carried herself into the traditional healer's hut with the bearing of a princess. Like other members of this nomadic cow-herding tribe in southern Mali, she wore a long, flowing blue dress, painted her lips with indigo and henna, and adorned her earlobes with magnificent gold crescents. Once inside, however, the old healer watched her poise wither away. She was weak from recent childbirth, the palms of her hands were pale with anemia and her forehead was hot to the touch. The woman was so terribly exhausted that she nodded off just recounting her woes. “Soumaya,” the healer proclaimed. Malaria.

With that folk diagnosis in hand, the two Western doctors observing her visit—Bertrand Graz of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and Merlin Willcox of the University of Oxford—got to work. The woman signed an informed-consent form, provided her medical history, and allowed the researchers to take a prick of her blood for parasite counts and other analyses. She would be taking part in a remarkable study to measure the cure rate of an herbal tea prepared with the leaves of a canary yellow poppy. By the time of her follow-up, three days later, she was well on her way to recovery.

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