Ancient Roots, Modern Medicine – Borderlands

– [Announcer] The
following is a production of New Mexico State University. – [Narrator] As researchers
work to discover new drugs to defeat
cancer, they’re looking in some unexpected places. Here in Mexico, native
healers have been using medicinal plants for thousands of years. Today, some of those plants
are providing important clues for scientists trying to
develop new medicines. – After all, many medicines are based on herbal principles, you know. Many herbs have given
us the active principles in synthetic medicines. – most of our anti-cancer drugs, or at least many of them, are derived from natural sources,
plants and microorganisms. – [Narrator] The
possibilities of native plants have captured the imagination
of Dr. Mary O’Connell and her students at New
Mexico State University. In a special program funded by the National Institutes of Health, these young scientists
are helping identify and begin the analysis of medicinal plants of the desert Southwest. Some day, this work may lead to new cures. And people everywhere will benefit from the extraordinary convergence of ancient roots, modern medicine. (dramatic music) (soothing guitar music) – [Presenter] Morning in Oaxaca. This region of the
southern coast of Mexico is one of the world’s great
centers for crafts and folk art, with a history reaching
back more than 2,000 years. The tradition is very much alive today. (sword chopping) Many villages here
specialize in a single craft. Pottery from local clays,
weaving from sheep’s wool, basketry made of palm
fronds, or the fanciful wooden carvings known as alebrijes. In this village of
Arrazola, many families have home studios where they carve copal wood from nearby forests. Other family members do
the intricate painting that brings these
imaginative carvings to life. These wooden creatures, monsters, animals, and everything in between,
are popular with tourists for their beauty and authenticity. With few modern conveniences
and an agrarian economy, the local people have a close
relationship with nature. (shovel scraping) They use native plants for food, for their livelihood, and for healing. (speaking Spanish) – [Amada] My mother showed me because her children would get sick,
and she would look for herbs. She would bathe us or give
us something to drink. I remember the herbs she
used, so I could use them too. – [Presenter] Amada Aguilares Martinez is a curandera, a healer. She collects dozens of different herbs from the land near her village, and still others from a distant canyon during the rainy season. (speaking Spanish) – I do work with herbs,
but I also work with God. Because God gave us
these plants on the land to cure His Children. (speaking Spanish) (speaking Spanish) Here, and this one is called chepito. What is chepito good for? It is good to use against colds. And this one is called yerba moradita. It is good for when you
eat something spicy, and if you have heartburn, you can take some of this and it will go away. – [Presenter] The people who come to her pay Amada whatever they think it’s worth, although she says another curandero nearby does have set rates for his cures. (rooster crows) Since modern doctors are
far away and more expensive, herbal healers are the
primary source of medical care for many Oaxaquenos, who are
mostly subsistence farmers. (rooster crows) Amada is sad that none of her children wanted to learn from her. They’ve all moved away from the village. She worries her knowledge of desert plants will die with her. (speaking Spanish) – What I tell people is
that they need to learn, because I will not live forever. (bells ringing) (brass band music) – [Presenter] But today,
worries are set aside. This is the feast of
Saint Andrew the Apostle, patron saint of this village. These boys and girls receive
their First Communion, and share a special blessing
from the Virgin Mary by passing out colorful paper flowers. (brass band music) (crowd chattering) Among those returning to
celebrate with the village is one of Amada’s former patients,
Rosalina Sanchez Mendoza. She and her husband,
Prisciliano Cortes Cruz, have brought their
youngest daughter, Iral, to see her grandparents
for the first time. (crowd chattering) (corn kernels crunching) Rosalina’s mother has been busy preparing food for the festival. Today, she and Rosalina
get some dried native corn, a major local crop, ready to be soaked, ground, and made into tortillas. (women speaking Spanish) The visit goes quickly, and
soon it’s time for the couple to leave the old life, and return to what they hope will be a much better future. (soothing music) Like so many other Mexicans eager to work, that means that they head north, a three-day journey by bus on rough roads, to La Frontera, the border. Their new home, Ciudad Juarez, is separated from El Paso,
Texas by the Rio Grande. (engine humming) Buses come here to bring workers to the maquiladoras
factories, run just across the Mexican border by American companies. There, they can earn in one
hour what is a full day’s wage for a man elsewhere in Mexico, about $2. (dog barking) Most live in outlying
districts, called colonias, in one-room buildings made
of cement, if they’re lucky, but often in tin, or
even cardboard shacks. There’s no indoor plumbing. Running water and electricity
are only recently available. Streets are unpaved. (dog barking) Dust and wild dogs everywhere. Crime is rampant. Still, there is the hope of a better life. If not for Rosalina and Prisciliano, then at least for their four children. Here in Anapra, on the
outskirts of Juarez, the older children can go to school. Prisciliano’s family, unlike most of their neighbors, has running water. Prisciliano’s 70 year
old mother would rather be back in her old village,
but lives with them to help out with the
children and the chores. (speaking Spanish) Rosalina goes door to door in the better, older neighborhoods of
Juarez, to sell the baskets, purses and animal figures that
Prisciliano weaves at home. (speaking Spanish) – For us, weaving is like an inheritance that our grandparents left us. And we go out in a city, and find ways to earn money with our work. Because we know there are others, that when they get to the city, they don’t know where to go or what to do. (speaking Spanish) They don’t have money, and they don’t know where to work to earn some money. But at least we can trust
that we know what to work on. Even though we know we will struggle, but we can weave this little animal, and go to a house and sell it, and we can earn five or 10 pesos, and then share it with the family. (speaking Spanish) – [Presenter] Prisciliano
says he loves weaving. He learned from his father,
and is teaching his children. There have been some modern enhancements. (speaking Spanish) – This needle is made
out of a car antenna. And here, we just took it to be cut. This helps us a lot. – [Presenter] So far, between the weaving and playing in a band, Prisciliano earns just barely enough to buy
groceries for the family. Most meals are tortillas, beans and rice. It’s a lean existence. There’s no extra money for medicine. When one of the children is sick, Rosalina and Prisciliano
come to Cristo Rey, a missionary clinic
started four years ago, by Dr. San Juana Mendoza. – Well, I come from a mining family. My father, my grandfather,
my uncles, they were miners. They work in the Sierra
Madres of Chihuahua, and I was aware somehow about the hardness of living in isolated
places, and living with no medical sources available. And it was for me a very
deep memory, vivid memory, seeing my mom, not
sleeping the whole night, because she had a baby sick. And she didn’t have sources
sometimes to go to a doctor. And for me that was a very painful one. Very, pitiful memory. To see a mother suffering
because a child is sick. We have population that
comes from the country areas of the south of Mexico, like Oaxaca, and they come to the north, migrating, looking for job opportunities. These people very, very low
education, and low income. Their average income is
about $35 to $45 per week. Their main source of work is
the factories, the maquilas. It is very hard for them to
keep a steady employment. And they haven’t a steady income. Unfortunately, the
lifestyle change for bad. They tend to buy Frito’s,
they tend to buy junk food. And they tend to get very
addicted to sodas, to the sugar. (speaking Spanish) So, they start developing diseases that were not common in their villages. Like hypertension, and
diabetes, arthritis. Even depression. It’s very sad. – [Presenter] This young
woman suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. A prescription drug can help control it, but it is very expensive. So Dr. Mendoza teaches her
about some herbal remedies that can help her reduce
the dose she needs. (speaking Spanish) – I recommend them to use, you know, natural things that are available. Like a healthy, healthy diet. A healthy plan of exercising,
and also to use wild herbs that are available in our community. One of those herbal
remedies is named prodigiosa also we call it hamula,
and the scientific name is brickellia grandiflora. And it grows wild here. It’s about one meter or two meters high. And this herbal is very efficient to lower the blood sugar levels. And the people can grow
the mint themselves, you know, in pots, they can grow them in their homes, and have it fresh. And the only thing it takes
is just to make an infusion. A little tea, and drink it
two or three times a day. Sometimes my patients come here, you know, with four hundreds, with
five hundreds of blood sugar. And with medication,
diet and exercise, again, combined with this herbal medicine, they can go on normal limits. So I encourage them. Not only to look for the herb, but to plant it in their own homes. After all, many medicines are based on herbal principles, you know. Many herbs have given us the active principle
in synthetic medicines. I see bunches of patients. Lots of families, they come, they migrate from the countryside. And they tend to disconnect
themselves with the roots, with their cultural roots,
and they tend to forget the ancestors’ knowledge. Every tribe used to have
their own medicines, and their own spices, and their own food. (pan pipe music) One of my duties is to remind them about this link between
them and their environment. To help them to recognize all
these sources that we have. To recognize the plants, and to accept and to come
back to the practical herbs that can save them money, can
help them to stay healthy, and make them more independent. But this desert is alive. It’s full of life. It’s full of plants,
it’s full of richness, it’s full of sources for
people to have a better life, and even to fight some disease. (speaking Spanish) – [Presenter] Today,
Rosalina and Prisciliano have brought in five year old Iran, who has been complaining
about a blister in his mouth. They pay a very modest
fee, and bring the doctor one of the animals Prisciliano has woven. After an exam, she prescribes
a rinse made from aloe vera, and an herb called malba,
which is inexpensive, and available at the local market. If that doesn’t clear up the infection, only then will she
prescribe a modern medicine. – Medicine is very expensive. Especially if they don’t have
insurance or medical benefits. (speaking Spanish) I regard myself like a healer. Still, my main concern is how to teach the people to stay healthy. To stay in the right path. And to prevent complications
that will take them to hospitals, or traumatic treatments. This is one of my goals. And this is my reward. If eventually a woman comes to me, and she said, you know, I now how to take care of certain illnesses, I don’t have to come to
you, I feel like clapping. I feel like laughing and praising God. – [Presenter] That passion
for educating others about the value of native herbal remedies has brought Dr. Mendoza to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. She comes to this summer workshop, run by Dr. Mary O’Connell. For six weeks, students study medicinal plants of the Southwest. (speaking Spanish) – Thank you very much for have invited me. – [Presenter] Dr. Mendoza has been invited to share her experiences treating patients with medicinal herbs, many of which are found on both sides of the border. – It’s kind of ashy green color, it has a very delicate
and very remarkable aroma. And the leaves are very
distinguished, like a little saw. And once that you see it, you smell it, you have it in your hands,
you will not forget it. – [Presenter] The workshop,
now in its fourth year, is funded by the National
Institutes of Health. – The goal of the NIH-funded project is that these students
would be attracted, trained, and ultimately pursue
PhD degrees in any number of disciplines that constitute
biomedical research. Chemistry, biology,
physiology, medicinal plants, natural products chemistry,
microbiology, bioengineering. All kinds of specific topic areas. – [Presenter] The program
has special appeal for students from minority cultures. – Many students in the
Southwest come from cultures that use plants as medicine for improving quality of life issues, for
relieving minor aches and pains, for colds, for treatments
of modest infections. And so, it’s very, very reasonable to excite these students
about how the chemistries in those plants could be studied, to have an efficacy in
a biomedical context. – Once I got really sunburned, really bad, and my grandpa, he’s not a medicine man, but he knew basic things,
how to use certain plants. And he made this sort of like pasty stuff, and he put it on my
skin, and it soothed it. – [Woman] In the old days
they used to do that. – [Man] My grandmother did, she used a lot of plant materials. Whether they’d be boiled
or actually eaten directly, for anything from cuts to wounds to intestinal problems to pink eye. (guitar music) – [Presenter] Today, the
class is on an herb walk in the nearby Organ Mountains. Dr. O’Connell has invited
nurse and herbalist Deborah Brandt to lead the class. – I’m on the State Board of Nursing, of the Integrated Medicine Committee, where we’re trying to
integrate and bring together different traditions and
different aspects of medicine. This is a good area for medicinal plants, because it’s in a transitional zone between the lower desert
and the higher desert. And so there’s a lot of overlap. That’s what I like this
trail for medicinal plants. We’ve seen probably 15 or 20 plants. Brickellia, garrya, silk
tassel, we’ve seen mesquite, caseia, prickly pear,
the chaya, desert willow. – They’re learning the basics
with botany of these plants, why local peoples use them,
and how they use them. They’re also appreciating
how the environment will influence the growth of these plants, how not any one plant is
the same as any other plant, what the effects of those then
might be on considerations of how these compounds
accumulate in the plant. – It’s called mariola. And if you smell it, it’s– – Everyone is a scientist. Humans are scientists. That’s what brings me to work everyday, is how does this work, how
does this organism behave, why does this plant make this chemical, that’s a whole other side to the project we really haven’t described yet. We, as humans, think
the plants make drugs. The plants make chemicals
for their own uses, and we’ve learned how to exploit them. And so these same
chemicals that plants make to attract animals as pollinators, or repel animals because
they chew them up, are then the same chemicals that then become useful to us in a drug setting. We’ve generated a list of plants to study, based on probably 100
years of what’s called ethno-botanical literature. The basis, or the hypothesis,
is that if you use plants as a source of drugs,
that have been identified by cultures as being
important medical agents, you increase the odds of finding efficacious chemistries two to threefold. So the drug companies know this factor. Medical communities understand this. So what we’re hoping to show
is that students will learn how drugs are developed
by studying the whole process of chemical syntheses,
chemical extractions, analytical tools, and then testing those chemistries for their efficacy. (students chattering) – [Presenter] The students spend hours learning precise lab procedures
to be used on the plants. – [Mary] How to extract
and purify the compounds, how to identify them structurally, what kinds of solvents to use, how to design biological
experiments to test for the ability of some of these extracts
in controlled settings to inhibit the growth of
different microorganisms. – [Presenter] But they
also discuss the ethics involved in collecting
native plants from the wild. – You could say, plagiarizing,
but the word bio piracy is being used now to describe the collecting of plant material, information about biological material, from all around the world. – Would India have any
sovereign rights over the plant? – [Mary] Yes. (student mumbling) – [Mary] And this is the
idea that developed nations go to regions of high genetic
or biological diversity, and collect from there valuable
plant or animal materials, living materials, and use
those in another context. And then often sell
them back to the country from which this material originated. – [Presenter] Not only
are students exposed to the ethics of biopiracy
in developing countries, but Dr. O’Connell has arranged
an exciting collaboration with a cutting-edge research center. A small group of young
scientists will be taking their desert plants to
Seattle for testing. – I want to welcome you
to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, and I hope
you have a productive and constructive couple of days with us. My lab at the Hutchinson Center specializes in drug discovery. And the group at New Mexico State studies native plants of the Southwest. Plants have always been a rich source of biologically active
compounds, medicinal compounds. And so we saw an opportunity
to put together a program, where we would screen compounds extracted from Southwestern plants
in our anti-cancer assays. – [Presenter] The students
brought not only their compounds, but their enthusiasm,
and their own reasons for pursuing this kind of research. – This is kind of a personal issue. This just actually started back in 1993, when my mother was actually
diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy,
which as you all know is the removal of the breast, and that to me was just kind of like an awakening, it’s what I wanted to do. I was a realist, I knew that I wasn’t gonna be able to play sports all my life. I’ve always been a fan of science. It’s a totally different world. – Other natives in New Mexico, indigenous people who I’m speaking about. have used this, this plant
for illnesses in the stomach, so all the gastro-intestinal problems. So, hopefully I can find some activity from this plant for
something of that nature. – And then, I broke down the plant into separate organs,
leave, roots and stems. – The great data drive ends
up with lots of information, but one of the key points is to keep track of what everybody did. And so, if a mistake is made in which well a sample goes into, or a
code is incorrectly entered, we can spend a lot of
time retracing errors and waste time and money. So what I’m doing is
making sure that we know exactly what went into those wells. And so we can go back
and find those plants, find the extracts, work them
up, purify compounds from them, should any of these crude preparations have an interesting activity. – Most of our anti-cancer
drugs, or at least many of them, are derived from natural sources,
plants and microorganisms. So, over the millennia that evolution has worked on these
sources, they have developed very sophisticated pathways to produce small molecules, what we know as drugs. And that evolutionary
process has yielded things that are very specific in their action. What we’re trying to do
is to discover whether that specificity is useful
in the treatment of cancer. There are over 100 specific
diseases, specific indications, that we collectively call cancer. And those all have unique
genetic fingerprints. So the likelihood that any
single drug will be active against the whole spectrum
of tumors is small. What we’re trying to do is
now match specific medicine to specific genetic
fingerprints to treat cancers. – [Presenter] Today,
the students are testing their plant extracts in baker’s yeast. – We’ve genetically modified
these yeast to model some of the genetic alterations
that occur in human cancers. The development process, should
we see promising activity, is long and complicated,
but fairly predictable. So, first, we would fractionate the crude extracts into
individual compounds, and isolate the individual chemical that’s responsible for the activity. It would then go through a
process of preclinical testing, where we would test it using
human cancer cell lines, as well as cancer models in animals. It would go through toxicology testing, to make sure that it’s a safe compound. And ultimately, if all goes are positive, into human clinical trials. – [Presenter] Simon says
developing a new drug can take anywhere from five to 10 years, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Still, he sees reason for optimism. – There’s always a chance
that medicinal compounds will be found in the most unlikely places. The Pacific yew tree is something that we see in Seattle almost everyday, and it looks not terribly promising, but it’s a source of Taxol, which is one of the most effective
anti-cancer agents known. So, yes, I’m very optimistic
that we will find something. (soothing music) – [Presenter] In fact, these three plants, bearberry, datura, and wild mustard, brought by New Mexico State students, showed promising results in
the first round of tests. Or perhaps the next breakthrough may come from the medicinal
plants that Rosalina and Prisciliano buy at
their local herb market. These botanical wonders, like the ones from New Mexico State, could hold valuable clues for medical researchers. And one day, people
everywhere will benefit from the coming together of
ancient roots, modern medicine. – [Narrator] Next time, on
Ancient Roots, Modern Medicine. (dramatic music) Journey to the exotic
Caribbean island of Curacao, where Dina Fieres is on
a crusade to preserve her homeland’s diminishing
medicinal plants. And see how scientists
are unlocking the power of the island’s botanical wealth. From the divi-divi tree’s ability
to fight staph infections, to mermaid’s hair, a coastal algae with the promise of cancer cures. (dramatic music) (soothing music) – [Narrator] For more information on Ancient Roots, Modern Medicine, log on to – [Announcer] The
preceding was a production of New Mexico State University. The views and opinions in this program are those of the author,
and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the NMSU Board of Regents.

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