A medicinal plant endemic to the southern parts of Western Ghats and Sri Lanka could offer scientists the key to new herbal formulations and modern drugs for the treatment of cancer and wounds and burns.

Scientists at the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (JNTBGRI) here have confirmed the multiple therapeutic properties of Neurocalyx calycinus used by the Cholanaickan tribe, one of the particularly vulnerable groups in Kerala, to treat inflammations and wounds.

The researchers have filed for a patent on a novel herbal drug formulation possessing wound-healing, burn-healing, anti-cancer, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, immuno- enhancing, platelet-augmentation and anti-oxidant effects.

The scientists came to know of the miracle plant in 1988 during a biological survey deep inside the Nilambur forests. The team led by S. Rajasekharan, former Head, Ethnomedicine and Ethnopharmacology division, JNTBRI, came across Kuppamala Kaniyan, a tribal elder, with hideous scars right across his chest. On inquiry, it was revealed that he had been terribly mauled by a bear a few years ago.

“We were told that the animal had pinned him down and was trying to rip open his chest. The bleeding tribesman somehow fought back and managed to hack the bear to death,” says Dr. Rajasekharan. “It took three days of persuasion before Kuppamala Kaniyan revealed how he had made a paste from the fresh leaves of N.calycinus, known in local parlance as ‘pacha chedi,’ to arrest the bleeding and heal the fresh wounds on his chest.”

Systematic documentation of traditional knowledge helped scientists take up the research work later.

Animal trials have proved that the leaves of N.calycinus possess wound-healing properties comparable to the standard drug Povidone/ Iodine in the early phase of inflammation. The anti-inflammatory activity of the leaves was found comparable to the drug diclofenac sodium.

The pre-clinical trials confirmed the therapeutic effects of N.calycinus against burn wounds and pain, besides its immuno-enhancing, platelet augmentation, and anti-oxidant potential. The presence of high Vitamin E content and potent cytoprotective activity in cell lines in the plant species have also enhanced the prospects of developing an anti-cancer drug.

In a presentation that won the best paper award at the Kerala Science Congress last month, Aneeshkumar A.L., a member of the research group, said the work had thrown up promising leads for the development of novel herbal formulations and modern medicines.

“It will now need multi-institutional studies to take the work forward,” says Dr. Rajasekharan.

The paper said the JNTBGRI would share the commercial benefits of its work with the dwindling Cholanaickan tribe.

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