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West Indian Medical Journal

Print version ISSN 0043-3144

West Indian med. j. vol.55 no.4 Mona Sept. 2006

http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0043-31442006000400008 

ORIGINAL ARTICLES

 

A review of medicinal plant research at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, 1948–2001

 

Un resumen de la investigación sobre plantas medicinales en la Universidad de West Indies, Jamaica, 1948–2001

 

 

SA Mitchell; MH Ahmad

Biotechnology Centre, The University of the West Indies, Kingston 7, Jamaica, West Indies

Correspondence

 

 


ABSTRACT

This review summarizes research carried out on Jamaican medicinal plants at the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science, The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Jamaica, between 1948 and 2001. The plants identified as being medicinal are listed along with their folk use and a summary of the scientific research done at UWI leading to the identification of natural products (NPs) and determination of their bioactivity. Natural product research on Jamaican medicinal plants began with the inception of UWI in 1948, leading to many postgraduate degrees being awarded (22 MPhil and 31 PhD). At least 334 plant species growing in Jamaica have been identified as having medicinal qualities, 193 of these have been tested for their bioactivity. Crude extracts from 80 of these plants have reasonable bioactivity and natural products (NP) have been identified from 44 plants. At least 29 of these NPs were found to be bio-active. Only 31 of the plants tested at UWI are endemic to Jamaica. Of these 23% were bio-active, as compared to 11% of the non-endemics. Based on these results, patents have been obtained and drugs have been developed. This review represents the first attempt to gather this information together in one place.


RESUMEN

El presente trabajo resume la investigación sobre plantas medicinales jamaicanas, llevada a cabo en la Facultad de Ciencias Puras y Aplicadas de la Universidad de West Indies (UWI), Mona, Jamaica, entre 1948 y 2001. Las plantas identificadas como medicinales se enumeran junto con su uso popular y un resumen de la investigación científica realizada en UWI, la cual condujo a la identificación de los productos naturales y la determinación de su bioactividad. La investigación de productos naturales que tuvo por objeto las plantas medicinales jamaicanas, comenzó con la fundación de UWI en 1948, y en el transcurso de su desarrollo, condujo a la obtención de numerosos grados científicos. (Para el año 2001, en la Facultad de Ciencias Puras y Aplicadas se habían defendido 22 maestrías y 31 doctorados asociados con dicha investigación.) Por lo menos 334 especies de plantas que crecen en Jamaica han sido identificadas como poseedoras de propiedades medicinales, 193 de las cuales han sido sometidas a prueba para determinar su bioactividad. Los extractos crudos de 80 de estas plantas poseen una bioactividad razonable, y se han identificado productos naturales (PN) en 44 plantas. Se halló que por lo menos 29 de estos PN son bioactivos. Sólo 31 de las plantas sometidas a prueba en UWI eran endémicas de Jamaica. De éstas, el 23% resultó ser bioactivo, en comparación con el 11% en el caso de las plantas no endémicas. Sobre la base de estos resultados, se han obtenido patentes, y se han desarrollado medicamentos. Este resumen representa un primer intento por compilar esta información en un solo trabajo.


 

 

INTRODUCTION

Much of the wealth of a country resides in its plant inheritance, whether the plants are endemic, naturalized or recent introductions. Jamaica has 2888 known species of flowering plants that are native or fully naturalized, 784 species (27.2%) of these are endemic to the island (1). These plants find use as shade, ornament, food, spices and medicine. Copious research aimed at determining the nature and potential of natural products taken from Jamaican-grown plants has been carried out at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus, since its inception in 1948, but no single source could be found listing all the medicinal plants of Jamaica, nor the research done on them. Since the research results were scattered widely in various thesis and papers, it has proven difficult to determine i) how many plants growing in Jamaica are known to be medicinal, ii) how many of these plants (and/or derived natural products) are bio-active and therefore have economic potential, iii) what intellectual property does UWI hold based on this research, iv) what benefit has been derived from this research, and v) what is the way forward? Answers to these questions can help to inform attempts to protect these plants (especially the endemics) whether in situ, or as ex situ or in vitro gene banks; to inform biotechnological research; further NPs research; or be used for economic gain.

Traditionally, there has been a strong dependency on medicinal plants to treat illness in Jamaica, as highlighted in a report from the Tropical Metabolism Research Unit (TMRU) of the UWI, in Jamaica. Seventy-one per cent of their patients from that report had been treated with herbal remedies before presentation to the medical service (2). Medical folk usage of plants has depended mainly on oral instructions therefore plants should be used with great care until investigated for possible toxic side effects (3). Most Jamaican folk-uses tend to be for medicinal purposes eg colds, fever, coughs, to build strength or as antiworm concoctions (2, 4–13). Less use is made of plants as natural pesticides (14–16). Since the 1960s, the trend has been towards gaining a better understanding of traditional medicine (2, 10, 11, 17, 18) and for the precise evaluation of how it can be incorporated into modern medical practice (4).

This review summarizes the natural product research conducted at the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science, The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Jamaica, between 1948 and 2001. There have been some reviews on the ethnobotany, informal medication (including bush teas) and bioactivity of Jamaican plants (4–11, 19). However, no previous attempt to review the scientific research of medicinal plants at UWI, Mona, was found except for one bibliography (20). Some of the early literature has proven difficult to find but it is hoped that this summary is comprehensive enough to be useful. The main aim of this review was to assemble the most comprehensive and accurate list of Jamaican-grown plants identified by UWI scientists as having medicinal properties, and to summarize research done at UWI on these plants. This list, verified by taxonomists, can be used to inform further research and economic ventures.

 

METHOD

All the projects, papers, reviews and graduate theses (source material) published by scientists at the University of the West Indies, Faculty of Pure and Applied Science, Mona, Jamaica, between 1948 and 2001 that could be found were used to produce this review. Of the 53 graduate thesis identified in the bibliography (20), 30 of these were found (18 of these were PhD thesis) and are referred to at the relevant places in Table 6. The unavailable theses are listed here because, although the plants could not be identified, there are still a resource that needs to be studied further (21–36). Some literature also was not easily assigned to a particular plant species but is listed for completeness (37–43).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 



 

For this review, from each source material, the scientific and common name of the plant(s) tested, and their ethnomedical use(s), was extracted. Plants with medicinal (Table 2) and agricultural bioactivity (Table 3) and associated NPs (Table 4) are summarized in this review. Table 5 lists these plants (1. to 334.), arranged alphabetically by family, followed by genus and species. Only the most accurate, up-to-date scientific name is listed. Table 5 was verified for accuracy by both the UWI and Institute of Jamaica herbariums; 94% of these plants had at least one entry in one or both herbariums. A summary of the research results for each plant studied or listed at UWI, Mona (1. to 226.) was also extracted from each source material and is listed in Table 6. Plants 227. to 334. were identified by Asprey and Thornton in 1953–5 (5–9) as being used in folk medicine but they have not been studied any further at UWI, Mona.

In this review, 'Medicinal Plants' includes those plants with traditional medical (folk-medicine) or agricultural uses. 'Ethnomedicine' is the traditional uses made of these plants within Jamaica and abroad and is the use(s) stated in the papers reviewed. 'Endemic' plants are those plant species that are found only in Jamaica. 'Natural products' are secondary metabolites isolated directly from plants. 'Active ingredients' are those NPs that are bio-active and 'bioactivity' means that the plant (extract) caused death or demise of at least one test organism, or was found to have a pharmacological effect leading to alleviation of a disease such as diabetes or glaucoma. The test organisms used are given in Table 1.

 

RESULTS

The plants used in medicinal plant research at UWI, Mona, were primarily selected based on ethnobotany and previous research. Plants free of pest damage and lacking morphological adaptations such as a thick cuticle or spines and/or belonging to families known to contain compounds with pesticidal activities have also been tested (54) (Table 5). Table 6 lists all the plants tested and the results as given in the respective literature (for bioactivity against organisms as listed in Table 1 and for pharmacological activity).

Natural product research began at the inception of UWI, Mona in 1948, in the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science (FPAS), Chemistry Department. Early results include the elucidation of the poison principle in ackees (55, 56) and NPs in periwinkle now used to treat leukaemia (57). Between 1953 and 1955, Asprey and Thornton reviewed the ethnomedical use of over 250 Jamaican plants (5–9). The pharmacological screening of Jamaican medicinal plants began in 1958 with the screening of over 116 plants (58–59). This present review lists 334 plants that were named as medicinal in the literature reviewed (at least 207 papers/ theses were produced during this period) (Table 5). Out of these, 193 plant species (55%) have been investigated for their bioactivity against human or plant pathogens, and/or for possible pharmacological or physiological actions: crude extracts from 80 of these plants had reasonable bioactivity (Table 6). Many departments in the FPAS are actively involved in this research, which has continued to the present, resulting, by 2001, in the award of 22 MPhils and 31 PhD degrees (listed in references).

Medicinal bioactivity

Crude extracts and purified natural products have been identified with the following medicinal value: for glaucoma (46.), as an ulcer dressing (49.), utero-active compound (30.), anti-tumor (106.), anti-cancer (45., 161., 165.), hypertension (84., 135., 165.), immunodilatory activity (159.), anti-growth properties (83.), short-term memory (123.), anti-convulsant, anti-inflammatory (212.), anti-leukaemic (83., 226.), for diabetes (many), to kill mosquitoes, intestinal nematodes and bacteria, and for tuberculosis (Table 2).

Agricultural bioactivity

Natural products can be used in agriculture. Synthetic organic pesticide usage has led to resistance in insects, resurgence of secondary pests and contamination of water resources (60). This has led to research on NPs – to extract, identify and elucidate the precise action of these products – as biological control agents. Many plants have been found whose extracts have insecticidal, fungicidal, nematocidal and acaricidal activity (Table 3). The plants listed as antibacterial in Table 2 against human pathogenic bacteria can be used in agriculture as biodisinfectants.

Identification of natural products

Natural products were identified in 44 of these plants; 29 were bio-active (Table 4). Some algae, fungi, and a millipede have also been tested for bio-active NPs (61–63). Natural products have also been used as lead compounds in the development of more potent bio-active agents (64–68).

Identification of most bio-active plants

Between 1948 and 2001, crude extracts and isolated NPs have been tested from over 50 Croton species, many endemic Piperaceae species and over 111 other plants (Tables 5, 6). The most potent plants – John Charles (106.), neem (130.), shame-milady (134.), breadfruit (135.), kidney bush (140.), ackee (192.) and spirit weed (212.) – tended to exhibit multiple bioactivities (Tables 2-4). Of special interest are the Piperaceae. It is only in the last two decades that reports were found on New World Piper species (15). In Jamaica, the Piperaceae family is represented by Piper (11 spp, 6 are endemic), Peperomia (40 spp) and Pothomorphe (2 spp). This family is used in cold and stomachache remedies and as an insect repellant; it contains phenylpropanoids, butanolides, benzoic acid and flavonoid derivatives (69). Many endemics and non-endemics, from this family have been found to have bioactivity (14, 15, 49, 52, 69 – 78). The plants listed but not tested in Table 5 (PRN 227.–334.) and Table 6 represents a reservoir of potential still not tapped. Also, there were five plants (79–83) that were not in Adams (1) and could be useful if found locally.

Endemics

Many of the plants used in the Jamaican folk medicine, and found to have medicinal and agricultural potential at UWI, are not endemic to Jamaica. Of the 334 identified medicinal plants growing in Jamaica, 31 were endemic (9.3%); another 12 have a restricted distribution range to the Caribbean, 50% were restricted to the Americas while 37% are found throughout the tropics (Table 5). Bioactivity was found in 23% of the endemics and 11% of the non-endemics. The endemic medicinal plants are printed in bold in Tables 2–6. There are about 784 endemic plant species in Jamaica (27% of the 2 888 known plant species), many of which are rare according to Adams (1); but their medicinal value is unknown at present.

Other research

Along with testing crude plant extracts, identification of natural products and active ingredients, pharmacological and toxicity testing, and formulation development, there has also been some research on the development of micropropagation and other tissue culture protocols (84 – 86).

Intellectual property and derived benefits

One of the first patents awarded for NPs research was in 1959 for an antibiotic named Monamycin active against the Panama disease pathogen (isolated by Ken Magnus and Cedric Hassall with IP assigned to the British NRDC). One of the most recent patent was awarded in 2002 for a potent antihelminthic called Eryngial (isolated by Wayne Forbes, Ralph Robinson and Paul Reese) – this IP is shared between the UWI and the Scientific Research Council. Several other natural products in commercial production include hypoglycin, canasol and asmasol (the latter two are registered products in Jamaica derived from Cannabis sativa [46.]).

 

DISCUSSION

The main aim of the present review was to develop a comprehensive and accurate list of plants growing in Jamaica that have identified folk medical uses, and to determine their potential based on research results of Jamaican scientists up to 2001. The input of UWI botanists and biotechnologists has so far been much less than the chemists and pharmacologists, but for safety and for further research and development, it is very important that the plants are accurately identified. The resulting listing of 334 medicinal plants of Jamaica, though undoubtedly leaving out some unavailable research results, should be enough to answer the questions outlined earlier and serve as a base for further research and development.

It is hoped that this review will serve as an encouragement to all those involved in this field. The importance of this industry to Jamaica is well-recognized (19, 87–90). There is certainly a lot of potential, both identified (Tables 2–4) and still to be tapped (Table 5, plants 227.-334.; Table 6, all those listed but not tested). The challenge is to supplement this list by more ethnomedical surveys, continue testing these plants for bioactivity and toxicity; develop commercial formulations and standardize such extracts; develop ex vitro and in vitro germplasm collections, and develop tissue culture protocols for in vitro secondary metabolite production and for rapid multiplication of selected plants to produce elite planting material for commercial medicinal plant ventures. Protection of this knowledge, and fair share of the benefits, remain important. All these are areas of active research and will no doubt bring medicinal plant research at UWI to maturity.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Part funding was provided by the Organization of American States, Jamaica, for compilation of this information. The herbarium searches were funded by the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica. Thanks to all the researchers who made their papers and information available to us, and for all those who helped review this article especially Dr Lawrence Williams.

 

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Correspondence:
Dr SA Mitchell
Biotechnology Centre, The University of the West Indies
Kingston 7, Jamaica, West Indies
Fax: (876) 977-3331
e-mail: sylvia.mitchell@uwimona.edu.jm