Research in ayurvedic and herbal medicines of Indian origin, and translating that research into commercial medicine, is languishing in the country despite the good intentions of government agencies.
The reason, say researchers, is the lack of interest by pharmaceutical companies for ayurvedic products. However, Nair Hospital and KEM Hospital in Mumbai have ayurvedic research departments that do research in ayurvedic medicines. A major victory for the department of ayurvedic research at KEM hospital was a compound by the name 'tinospora cordifolia'.
The formulation was later commericalised under the name 'Immumod' by Wockhardt. “Wockhardt is still marketing the drug, but nobody has come back for any more research,” said Dr UM Thatte, head of research at the ayurvedic department of Nair hospital.
The statistics in favour of ayurveda and herbal products are telling. Global sale of impotency drugs is expected to be at $6 billion annually over the next six years. Ayurvedic and herbal formulations make up a significant chunk of the raw materials for many impotency drugs that pharmaceutical companies have in the market. Separately, the US market demand for medicinal plants is at US $60 billion to date. It is expected to grow up to $5 trillion by the year 2050.
In India, the total market for cosmetics and toiletries industry is $652.2 million, whereas the market-size of the skin-care segment alone is estimated at $ 261 million.
But these statistics seem to have failed to impress pharma companies. Companies such as Wockhardt and Dabur have professed an interest in herbal remedies. However, when it comes to funding research, they are not interested.
“We are marketing Immumod. Herbal products have never formed a significant part of our portfolio as it has not been our focus area,” said a Wockhardt spokesperson.
A possible reason, says CS Jadhav of Hyderabad-based Nandan Biomatrix is that most companies have their own research and development centres. Besides, ayurvedic medicines do not need to go through the usual route of toxicological studies and clinical trials. This makes the products less appealing for companies that are into research. Their aim is to patent their products, which is not possible for ayurvedic medicines.
Companies including the Mumbai-based Alkem Laboratories use ayurveda-based products in their nutraceutical and health food portfolio. “We have a chawanprash called Jeewanprash, and it is free of sugar and fat, and it is an ayurvedic product,” said Sharad Kasarle, head, Health Foods Division. But Alkem too does not have any plans of funding ayurvedic research.
A further reason for the apathy is the small number of ayurvedic products that have widespread commercial interest. Few products have the commercial potential of aloe vera, an ayurvedic product that is supplied to major pharmaceutical manufacturers in the country.
The department of health and family welfare has a department known as AYUSH, or Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy. “Though it is trying to promote learning in ayurveda and herbal medicine, progress is impossible without private participation,” said Dr Thatte.