Melicoccus bijugatus — known as guinep in Jamaica and Spanish lime, chenette, and skinip elsewhere in the Caribbean — is a gumball-size fruit popular in the region. The sweet, peach-coloured, sticky pulp around its seed is potentially effective in treating hypertension.
The same has been found of the big, glossy leaves of the breadfruit tree, very familiar to people living in the tropics. The jackfruit, in the same family as breadfruit, may have cancer-fighting properties in the heartwood of its tree.
The herb Peperomia pellucida, very common in the Caribbean and commonly known as shining bush, pepper elder, rat ear, or man to man, can possibly lower cholesterol and treat inflammation, pain, and fever.
The abundance and variety of Caribbean flora lend beauty to the landscape, and provide delicious foods that help make the region a popular tourism destination. But, more importantly, our plant life has been a source of easily accessible medicine for as long as human beings have lived here. And as more people arrived — from Europe, Africa, and Asia — they brought with them more plant species and ways of using vegetation to prevent and treat illness.
The Traditional Medicine for the Islands network (TRAMIL), which documents medically useful plants from the countries within the Caribbean Basin, has an online library that features 360 plant species. And there’s much more research to be done. Caribbean scientists who explore and document the medicinal value of the green life in their countries have a lot of work ahead of them.
“I love my work, and I love telling people about it,” says Dr Sheena Francis — one of those scientists. She is a researcher with the Natural Products Institute at the University of the West Indies Mona campus in Jamaica. The NPI, founded in 1999, is at the forefront of natural medicine research in the Caribbean. “We have all these fruits right there, all these plants that are right in our backyard throughout the Caribbean,” she says. “You see [plant supplements] coming out of America. But you find out that you have something as effective or even better that’s ours.”
The effectiveness of natural medicine has been demonstrated through centuries of use. But scientific confirmation is important to its acceptance as legitimate medical treatment, which could have positive or negative effects if used in conjunction with conventional medication.
NPI scientists noted in one research paper: “Of the approximately 3,175 vascular plants in Jamaica, at least 334 have been recorded as medicinal, but the actual number is likely higher.” A survey conducted by the NPI found that seventy-three per cent of Jamaican adults used medicinal plants. Another survey showed that eighty-one per cent of adults on prescription medicine also used natural medicine in their treatment regime, with only eighteen per cent saying their doctor was aware of it. Only eleven per cent said their doctor asked if they used natural products.
Meanwhile, a 2015 study in Trinidad and Tobago found that while a majority of doctors used natural medication themselves, and believed the products boost conventional treatments, only a small minority were willing to recommend natural medicine to patients.
To encourage and help health professionals discuss natural product use with patients, the NPI researches interactions between natural treatments and conventional medication. The institute has produced a handbook detailing possible interactions. “The chance of interactions of a prescription medication [used] along with a natural product can be clinically relevant and can therefore lead to adversities,” NPI director Professor Rupika Delgoda told an audience at a scientific forum at UWI Mona in April.
In a recent interview, Delgoda discussed the different activities of the NPI, many of them in collaboration with scientists in the region and other parts of the globe. NPI researchers collect information from communities in Jamaica about what natural products are used, for what ailments, and in what form. Based on this information, the institute tests various extracts and concoctions for possible usefulness in the treatment and prevention of diseases that widely affect Jamaicans, among them cancer, the second-largest killer in the country. The experiments are conducted using cell lines, enzymes, and, more recently, computer-based molecular modelling.
Delgoda hopes to expand her current team of four researchers to as many as fifty in the next six years. There is no shortage of interest in the field among students, she says. However, there is one major obstacle.
“Having a continued stream of funding support is our biggest challenge that limits the pace of our work,” she explains. “Meagre funds mitigate access to expensive instrumentation, curtails purchase of specialised fine chemicals, and, more importantly, prohibits the expansion of the scientific team.”
Delgoda points out that the Caribbean doesn’t have the equivalent of the Medical Research Council or the National Institutes of Health, state bodies that fund medical research in the UK and US, respectively. The institute is therefore looking for more “private sector involvement,” she says.
NPI researcher Dr David Picking, a member of the global Society for Economic Botany, believes there’s a huge potential return on investment in natural medicine. The production of pharmaceuticals is a distant and expensive possibility for Jamaica, but the production of nutraceuticals, or foods with medicinal properties — a billion-dollar industry worldwide — is something the country could do right now.
“One of the things I’m passionate about is how we can bring a project from the ground all the way through to a finished product,” says Picking. “The critical thing is funding. We need to raise consciousness about this so that we can do the work we need to do.”
Political support is vital. So far, it seems to be there. The Jamaican government established the National Nutraceutical Industry in 2015, a programme with a mandate to “develop a national industry, the essence of which is to embrace the cultural science and technology surrounding our healing plants.” One of the steps in that direction — so far approved by the Jamaican government and in the process of being finalised — is the amendment of the Food and Drugs Act to include the classification and registration of natural health products.
The NPI and other departments at UWI Mona have also collaborated with Jamaica’s Ministry of Health and Wellness to form the Mosquito Control Research Unit in 2017. It monitors mosquito resistance to insecticides in Jamaica and conducts other mosquito-related studies. The NPI is currently investigating the possibility of natural insecticides. Potentially deadly mosquito-borne diseases like dengue, zika, and chikungunya are a major health challenge in the Caribbean.
“We aim to add to the current selection of insecticides something that is natural, environmentally friendly, and tolerable to most people,” says Sheena Francis, who is part of the unit. “Something that is easily accessible, something that people probably have in their backyards.”