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Much before the brouhaha created by the NDA government on Ayurveda, many researchers were quietly exploring sundry leads provided by Ayurvedic texts with modern scientific tools. With increasing disease burden, their aim was to find out how the ancient knowledge can benefit the modern healthcare system.

The commonest approach was the ‘reductionist’ route, which involved identification of the ‘active principle’ in traditional medicine and developing a drug using modern molecular tools based on that principle. It does not typically fall in line with the basic philosophy of Ayurveda which involves a more holistic approach to healthcare.

Molecular drug hunt from traditional medicines often uses preliminary leads obtained from traditional literature or ethno-botanical studies for in-vitro search. These studies are conducted to explore the molecular actions of what the Ayurvedic practitioners believe is ‘holistic medicine.’

A section of scientists now thinks blind search for molecular drug is a failing model and suspect that a large number of researches may be moving on a dead end road. Instead, they opted to open up a new window to look at Ayurveda. A motley group of researchers at the Institute of Applied Dermatology (IAD), Kasaragod with colleagues from Oxford University, for instance, has replicated Ayurveda’s holistic experience within a frame of modern scientific protocol to develop a new protocol to treat Elephantiasis (Lymphatic filariasis) that is common in 250 districts of the country.

The Kerala institute showed traditional Ayurvedic drugs, used as it is in existing practice, can contribute to better skin care of chronic diseases. The Elephantiasis patients received Ayurvedic drugs, procured from the market, but the methods of administration were modified. The success is there for everyone to see, though the scientists have to negotiate several more challenges to make the treatment acceptable to wider population.

“Our method was to administer the whole drug and not the molecular extract of the formulations,” said IAD Chairman and Director S R Narahari. While ancient medicines are to be used as whole formulation, most of the scientists only look at the active ingredient to find out a new molecule. What is lacking is a systemic investigation of Ayurvedic drugs and treatments with modern scientific knowledge.

“The reductionist route did not typically fall in line with the basic philosophy of Ayurveda which involves a more holistic approach for healthcare (complex formulations rather than single drug combined with life style discipline). Also it is extremely rare that a traditional Ayurvedic practitioner has indulged in rationally designed and unbiased experimental study following the rigors of contemporary science,” commented S C Lakhotia from Banaras Hindu University.

A veteran in the field of exploring the Indian system of medicine, Lakhotia noted that majority of the existing Ayurvedic practitioners remained “faithful” to the ancient texts without any serious attempt to understand and reinterpret the traditional texts and vocabulary in the light of the contemporary knowledge.

One by one, scientists from different parts of the country have begun looking at Ayur-veda through the new window. A team at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bengaluru demonstrated clinical efficacy of Manasamitra Vataka and Shirodhara (Ayurvedic treatments) over clonazepam to improve sleep quality and duration in patients of generalised anxiety disorder, while another group at Medical Research Centre of Kasturba Health Society, Mumbai, together with scientists from the Pune University and Saurashtra University, used Ayurvedic principles and practices for the treatment of arthritis.

A third research group at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in Delhi went a step ahead in their efforts to explain Ayurvedic principles through genomics. Mitali Mukherjee and Bhavna Prasher set out to integrate Ayurveda with genomics to check if a particular person may be susceptible to a specific disease. They provided scientific evidence of how healthy individuals of contrasting Prakriti types – Vata, Pittha and Kapha – identified on the basis of Ayurveda, exhibit striking differences at the biochemical and genome-wide gene expression level.

Later, they identified specific genes for high-altitude adaptation and high-altitude illness among people, who were identified on the basis of their Prakriti. “Each individual is born with a specific proportion of tridosha that are not only genetically determined but also influenced by the environment during foetal development. Jointly, they determine a person’s basic constitution, which is termed their prakriti,” Mukherjee and Prasher explained in the Journal of Genetics.

Therapeutic practice
Development and progression of different diseases with their subtypes are thought to depend on the origin and mechanism of perturbation of the doshas, and the aim of therapeutic practice is to ensure that the doshas are properly regulated so that they remain constant.

Is dearth of finding an issue to block rese-arch into Ayurveda? Lakhotia felt resources are not a major limiting factor in recent tim-es after the government initiated ‘directed basic research’ in Ayurvedic biology about a decade ago. In addition, Ayush department too funds research. “What we need are good research projects using well-defin-ed experimental models to understand the efficacy and mechanism of actions of different formulations and practices,” he said.

“Such research is not happening in the absence of cross talks between scientists and Ayurveda experts. Not enough people are undertaking research on Ayurveda because the two disciplines speak different languages. Students are not interested because they would not get a job after doing their PhD in Ayur-Genomics or related fields,” said Mukherjee.

Narahari flagged another gap area. “Dominance of quantitative studies led to lack of funding to genuine research teams working on developing patient care protocols of integrative medicine. This is an opportunity lost for clinician-led intersectoral reverse pharmacology research groups. The immediate priority is to treat millions of suffering chronic patients,” he wrote in Current Science.

“A general cultural problem is that unless the western community appreciates something in India, we do not find it worthy. Consequently, till the western world began to realise merits in Ayurvedic system and in Yoga, we did not value these much,” Lakhotia summed up.