Organisation - August 30, 2012

Herbal experiment under fire

Anti-quackery association questions scientific value. Researcher sees potential in Ayurvedic remedy.

 Aerial view of the European Ayurveda Centre in Overijssel.
The Dutch anti-quackery association VtdK does not have a good word to say about a planned Wageningen research on an Indian herbal remedy. Human Nutrition and Plant Research International will investigate whether the herbal mixture offered by the European Ayurveda Centre has an impact on type 2 diabetes. The remedy is based on the non-scientific Ayurvedic tradition. The setup of the Wageningen researchers' planned tests would make it almost impossible to obtain meaningful results, claims the VtdK.
The double-blind, placebo-controlled test will examine the effect of the herbal medicine on insulin resistance, a preliminary stage of type 2 diabetes. Test subjects from the high-risk group are divided randomly into a group that takes the medicine for four weeks and a group that takes a placebo, explains Lydia Afman of Human Nutrition. The effects are then measured using blood tests.
Firing at random
The biggest problem, according to the VtdK, is that the mixture contains 20 herbs, all of which contain many active substances. Conventional medical research studies test all these substances in isolation. 'This approach is like firing at random', says Catherine de Jong, chair of the VtdK. 'The chances of something useful coming out of this are very slim.' But that is a misrepresentation of the aim of the experiment, says Afman. After all, the research is not about a medicine but looks at the herbal mixture as a whole - as you would with a foodstuff. Afman: 'A medicine has just one target that you go all out to stimulate. A remedy of this kind stimulates several receptors at the same time in a mild fashion.' She herself sees a lot of potential in these kinds of multifaceted 'attacks' on complex diseases such as diabetes.  Besides the experiment design, the anti-quackery watchdogs are also afraid that it is impossible to keep the composition of the mixture consistent. The researchers agree on this point. For this reason Plant Research International (PRI) will be looking at whether the contents are stable, says Ingrid van der Meer of Bioscience.
'You know this is controversial', says Afman, putting the strong reactions in perspective. Her own main drive is the wish to prevent diabetes. 'We shall see what comes out of this; I am going into it with a very open mind.' Van der Meer is similarly conscious aware of the fast-growing healthcare costs of diabetes. 'Overestimating yourself', is de Jong's judgment on this motive. 'As though nothing is being done at all the large diabetes institutes all over the world. Anyway, there are interventions for diabetes, such as changing eating habits.'