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There are lots of studies and tests to be done before a product can be put on sale, writes Kasmiah Mustapha
WHEN you listen to nature, you can’t go wrong. That’s a saying that Himalaya Herbal Healthcare has adhered to for more than 80 years.
Combining the principles of ayurveda with modern sciences, the company has developed more than 250 products based on nature. Through extensive research and development, the company’s 200 scientists have unravelled the components in 300 plants which are used in its pharmaceuticals, personal care, baby care and animal health products.
Head of its Drug Discovery, Research and Development Dr Rangesh Paramesh says a single plant has multiple benefits because there are various components in it.
“The approach in ayurveda, which means the science of life, is to promote the health of the healthy and to prevent disease of the diseased. We look at nature to treat diseases. For every disease, there is a plant to treat it. We believe that plants can be used for treatment, from head to heel.”
“Health is always changing. In order to maintain the health of the healthy all the time, we need to look at both the internal and external. Promoting healthcare encompasses care of the mouth — when you get up in the morning till you go to bed — which also includes your diet.”
IMPORTANCE OF R&D
He says research and development is important to validate the quality, authenticity, safety, efficacy and stability of the company’s products.
“Research is important to determine the right plant for a product. For example, there are 27 varieties of mint plants. They all smell and look almost similar. But there are only two varieties that we often use — mentha spicata and mentha piperata. Mentha piperata is very cooling while spicata is warm. If you want to make a lotion, you have to use piperata. If you do not identify the plant from research, the product will not work because you will be using the wrong plant.”
Himalaya also focuses on quality of the plants by looking at where they are grown and under what conditions. The quality of a plant grown in clean or polluted water is different.
“Turning plants into products is not an easy procedure. There are difficulties in stabilising the products, especially as we market them all over the world. For example, a lotion made in India will turn into a cream in Alaska as the climate is different.
“Because of this, we have to do a series of studies to establish which protocol is able to stabilise the products for the duration of its shelf life. This includes making sure it is safe for consumers and what benefits they can get from these products. We test on human volunteers for efficacy as well as clinical trials. We look at scientific validation on the use of these plants,” he says.
Ramesh says the process from seed to shelf takes between two and eight years. The scientists work in parallel on the discovery of new drug for both pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
“There is no limit in the number of active ingredients from one plant that we can use. For example, the ashwagandha is called Indian ginseng and has properties similar to Tongkat Ali. The plant has anti-ageing, anti-stress and anti-cancer properties.
“But the ingredients can also be turned into an anti-wrinkle cream. There are endless uses from one plant that we can develop further.”
He says new products are developed based on consumer demand, as well as taking into consideration the current scenario, the fallback, what the prescription should be and what the advantages are for consumers.
“Once we have the focus on what to develop, we will look for the herbs. For example, when we started developing the hair loss gel, we looked at the activities that existed in the herbs. We listed them out. Then we looked at scientific validation. Only then did we start work on identifying the active ingredients to deliver the benefits.”
On a recent visit to the company’s manufacturing facilities in Bangalore, India, Malaysian journalists were given a tour of its research and development facilities. The R&D facility was awarded good laboratory practice, the only herbal company in India to receive the certification.
Ramesh says research and clinical trials are important to ensure that the products are safe for consumers, especially if they are of medicinal value. Doctors have often voiced their concerns over patients resorting to alternative medicine.
In some cases, a patient’s condition worsens after using alternative medicine.
He says doctors will not advise alternative medicine because they don’t know how it works. They are used to modern medicine that has one molecule and one target relation. Conventional medicine is a defined pathway. Because of this, they don’t understand how herbal medicines work.
“But do you know the word ‘drug’ is derived from the medieval French word ‘drogue’ which means ‘dry herbal’? In fact men learnt to make drugs from plants. We learn from nature. We have synthesised and purified and recreated these plants as drugs. Nature is so complex that from one plant you can derive different molecules for different targets. Some doctors do not understand how molecule target is happening in plants.”
He says it is understandable that doctors are wary about alternative medicine unless there is scientific evidence on the efficacy of these products, so this has always been the focus at Himalaya.
“At Himalaya, we establish how the plants work. Our objectives have always been to show that the plants, which are predecessors and precursors of today’s drugs, can be established scientifically and evidence can be provided.
“When we do tests and trials, we always make sure the products can be used together with conventional medicine. We use the knowledge of plants based on ayurveda and merge it with modern science. We look for relevant studies for the data. We do research on the plant to establish if the components really work. We do not simply use any plant because not all have medicinal properties. Over the years, our products have been produced based on extensive scientific evidence.”