Published March 15, 2012
An anesthetic gel made from a plant found in the Peruvian rainforest is set to revolutionize dental treatment.
Indigenous tribes in Peru discovered the pain-killing properties of the Acmella Oleracea plant centuries ago and used it to treat toothache, ulcers and abscesses.
A Cambridge University anthropologist, Francoise Freedman, experienced the plant's anesthetic properties first hand while living with the Keshwa Lamas tribe in the Amazon in 1975.
She said, "We were trekking through the rainforest, and I was having terrible trouble with my wisdom teeth. One of the men with me noticed and prepared a little wad of plants to bite on to. The pain went away."
Freedman was able to continue with her work and forgot about the experience until a Cambridge-based neuroscientist asked her to bring some medicinal plant samples back to test them for neurological research.
"Almost as an afterthought I remembered to include the one I'd used on my teeth. It was added to the bottom of the list, but somehow the list got reversed and it was the first one tested back in the UK. It was immediately successful and we've never looked back," Freedman said.
The remedy has since performed well during the first two phases of clinical trials and is about to enter late-stage trials. If successful, the remedy may hasten the end of the present reliance on synthetic anesthetics in dental use and non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, in specific applications.
"This treatment for toothache means we could be looking at the end of some injections in the dentist's surgery," Freedman added.
She has founded a company called Ampika Ltd, a spin-off from Cambridge Enterprise, the University's commercialization arm. The business will be able to channel a percentage of any future profits back to the Keshwa Lamas community who agreed to share their expertise with her. If successful, Ampika plans to bring the product to market in 2014 or 2015.
More than 50 percent of prescription drugs are derived from chemicals first identified in plants, experts say. For example, the herb commonly used for cooking and grown in China, Star Anise, is the main ingredient of Roche Holding AG's anti-bird-flu drug Tamiflu.