The Ancient Science of Ayurveda Inspires Arthritis Research At NEOMED

May 1, 2017

Flowers from the Flame of the Forest tree, Butea monosperma, have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for millennia. Researchers in Northeast Ohio now find its extract helps prevent arthritis.
Credit FLICKR CC

A 4,000 year-old medical tradition from India is the inspiration for a local researcher who’s looking for new ways to treat and prevent arthritis. 

In the lab he’s unlocking the healing properties of herbs, fruits, and flowers.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair explores how modern science is revealing the ancient secrets of Ayurveda.

“My mother suffered from arthritis," says Northeast Ohio Medical University researcher Tariq Haqqi.

He says aspirin and other conventional treatments didn’t help, so she sought a traditional healer who prescribed certain herbs.

Dr. Tariq Haqqi studies arthritis and its treatments at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. His focus is on natural remedies inspired by traditional medicine.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

“And my mother felt quite a bit of pain relief and she was even able to walk after those medicines, so those things were in my mind from my childhood.”

Inspired by that success, Haqqi now studies how natural remedies work to relieve arthritis.

“We are studying the pomegranate extract. We are studying also another medicinal plant from India called Butea monosperma, and we are studying a purified compound called woginin, which is from the Chinese traditional medicine system.”

Pomegranate fruit and juice is everywhere.  Butea monosperma, or the Flame of the Forest tree, and the compound woginin from the Chinese skullcap flower (Scutellaria baicalensis) are a little less familiar.

Haqqi is testing all of them as potential arthritis medicines.

Healing properties of pomegranates
In a recent study Haqqi fed rabbits with surgically induced arthritis a pomegranate extract both before and after the surgery.

Pomegranates were known to ancient peoples as a mystical and healthful fruit. Researchers at NEOMED now find its a powerful tool in treating arthritis.
Credit ANTTI T. NISSINEN / FLICKR CC

He found that the cartilage in the knees of rabbits that ate pomegranates was relatively untouched by arthritis.

“We are not seeing the cartilage degradation here," says Haqqi, "because the enzymes which are involved in matrix breakdown are not being allowed to go up.”

Haqqi says compounds in the pomegranates migrate to the synovial fluid surrounding the knee joints, seep into the cells, and block the breakdown of the tissue.

One of his students is testing an extract of flowers from the Flame of the Forest tree to see if it has a similar effect in humans.

Flame of the Forest flowers
Mohammad Ansari shows me a petri dish with a thin layer of liquid that he says contains five million cells, which under a microscope look like misshapen polygons.

They’re called chondrocytes.

Mohammad Ansari works in the Haqqi lab at NEOMED studying the therapeutic properties of flowers from the Flame of the Forest tree, a traditional Indian medicinal plant.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

All the cartilage in your body, your knees, your nose, your ears, all of it comes from this one type of cell.

In the petri dish Ansari treats the chondrocytes with an inflammatory protein called Interleukin 1 beta that triggers the breakdown of cartilage – basically inducing arthritis - then he adds the Flame of the Forest flower extract.

Ansari says compounds from the flower extract called polyphenols stop the cartilage breakdown.

“They inhibit these pathways," that cause inflammation, Ansari says, and boost the growth of the cartilage matrix.

Ayurveda's ancient knowledge
The fact that these plants have healing properties is no surprise to Marc Halpern, founder of the California College of Ayurveda.

“There’s no shortage of evidence supporting the effectiveness of Ayurvedic medicine today.”

Ayurveda translates as the "science of life."

It’s a system of medicine that originated in India around 4,000 years ago, preserved in ancient texts.

“The textbooks of Ayurvedic medicine describe almost every condition that we face today…from cancer to ulcerative colitis, to pneumonia, to interstitial cystitis, kidney stones…”

The texts include descriptions of herbs like the ones Tariq Haqqi is testing in his lab.

How does the Ayurvedic system of medicine work?
“Ayurveda is a science of understanding what is right for you,” says Halpern.

We’re all different, says Halpern, and so is the way we respond to remedies.

“The closest thing to it in Western thought would be our genetic makeup.  We each have unique biochemical needs. Ayurveda has understood this for thousands of years.”

Halpern looks at 50 or so physical characteristics, your pulse, skin, eyes, digestion… to determine what he calls your Ayurvedic constitution and tendencies.

The emphasis, he says, is on prevention, “and once we understand their tendencies, then we can work with those tendencies to define a diet and lifestyle that’s right for that person.”

"Ayurveda is a science of understanding what is right for you."

Halpern’s college is the only school in the country that certifies Ayurvedic doctors, the highest level of accreditation.

Currently there are only a handful of Ayurvedic doctors in America.  But the number of Ayurvedic practioners and health counselors is growing.

Halpern looks forward to the day when Ayurveda goes mainstream.

“Eventually the day will come where you see an advertisement for Ayurvedic medicine during the superbowl!”

He is working with a yoga studio in Columbus to train Ayurvedic practioners.

Meanwhile at NEOMED, Tariq Haqqi is for seeking new, safer treatments for arthritis, using Ayurveda as inspiration.

“It is now for us to go deeper into it with modern science.”