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Can medicine be your food? A one-day symposium at Kew

Jason Irving
14 October 2013
Blog team: 
On 28 October 2013 Kew Gardens will host a symposium examining the borderline between herbal medicines and food supplements.

The symposium

The symposium will explore issues facing the herbal medicine industry following the recent changes to the way herbal medicine products are regulated within the European Union. As a result of an EU directive in 2004 the UK government established a Traditional Herbal Medicines Registration Scheme (THMRS) requiring herbal medicines sold over the counter to be licensed through the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

The title of the symposium ‘Can medicine be your food?’ focuses attention on the borderline in regulation between products classed as ‘supplements’ and those classed as ‘medicine’, as the same plant can fall into both categories depending on how it is prepared and presented. Many plants that are used medicinally are also sold as food supplements and in cosmetics which are not regulated through the THMRS. This affects how supply of these plants can be regulated to ensure products are high-quality and safe. Presentations will be given on specific aspects of this topic by experts in medicinal plant research and in the regulation of herbal medicinal products.

Some of the many products available containing medicinal plants

The day will conclude with a round table discussion on the topic ‘Food or medicine? – Health care products for minor self-limiting conditions’, chaired by Professor Michael Heinrich, with participants from the British and European medicine regulatory authorities, legal advisors, as well as practitioners and researchers of herbal medicine. 

Speakers from Kew

  • Dr Sarah Edwards has recently joined Kew's Medicinal Plant Names Services (MPNS) and will be giving a talk at the symposium. Sarah also teaches biological conservation at Oxford University and was recently a research fellow at the UCL School of Pharmacy. Her talk will highlight the intersections between consumer safety, plant conservation and sustainable livelihoods of communities that supply plant materials to the herbal medicine trade. Plants that are in high demand are often vulnerable to over-collection in the wild and this not only raises problems of conservation but it can also directly impact on safety. As the plant becomes harder to find unscrupulous suppliers may turn to adulterants to meet demand. These lookalikes may be less effective or inactive medicinally, but can also be dangerous to health if they contain toxic chemicals.

Two other Kew scientists who advise the MPNS project will also be talking at the symposium:

  • Christine Leon has many years of experience of the herbal medicine trade through her work establishing the pioneering Chinese Medicine Plants Authentication Centre at Kew, a project that works in both the UK and China to establish reliable reference sources and processes for verifying both crude plant material and processed medicines.
  • Professor Monique Simmonds is Head of Kew's Sustainable Uses of Plants Group. Monique co-ordinates research into the economic uses of plants and fungi, their potential as cosmetics, pharmaceutical and agrochemical leads, and as sources of sustainably harvested medicines. 

- Jason - 

Find out more

The symposium will take place in the Jodrell Laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on Monday 28th October 2013.

Full programme and registration details

On the evening of the same day, at 6pm, there will be a talk by Lara Bean (Medical Herbalist) titled: 'Exploring Britain's Native Plant medicine - old wives tales or old wise tales?'. This is part of the Kew Mutual Improvement Society Lecture series.

Details of the Kew Mutual Improvement Society Lecture series

More about the Medicinal Plant Names Services

Find out more about the work of Medicinal Plants Names Services

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