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Embracing Folk Medicine for a Healthier Future

Dr. Mamatha Ballal is completing 36 years as a teacher in Clinical Microbiology. Currently, she is the head of Enteric Diseases Division-Central Research Lab in Kasturba Medical College, Manipal University. Her penchant for folk medicine was inculcated into her by her grandmother. Over the last 25 years, some of Dr. Mamatha’s clinical studies on diarrhoeal organisms are based on folk medicine.

“From the beginning of my research, I was interested in folk medicine. My grandmother used to say whenever you have an abdominal discomfort or colics, you just have a strong decoction of tea or coffee. So when I was doing research on diarrhoeal organisms, I recalled her words,” she says.

The question that came to her mind was: “Why don’t I try it with diarrhoeal pathogens?”

Dr. Mamatha asked her students, who hailed from different parts of the world, to bring tea and coffee powders used in their region.  According to Dr. Ballal, “During the research, they gave excellent results.”

She conducted ‘folk research’ to grab the attention of people and lead them to embrace the nature for panacea.

Dr. Mamatha has done research on a large number of plants and their products during her search for natural medicines. Her research on tomato has proved that the fruit can heal the lesion or ulcers caused by a fungus candida seen in HIV patients. “Tomato has some components, which can heal the lesion seen in HIV positive patients. If you eat tomato the lesion can be cured,” she explains.

Based on her another study, which was also published already, Dr. Mamatha says papaya fruit gave a good result against diarrhoeal pathogens. The idea to select this fruit for her research work came due to its acceptance as a universal fruit since it’s a diet supportive.

Study on immature tender coconut

Dr Mamatha, along with a group of students, is currently conducting research on antimicrobial activity of young immature coconuts [‘machinga’ in Malayalam] for combating strains of Vibrio Cholerae, a bacterium that grows in brackish or saltwater and causes cholera, a life threatening disease if not controlled in time.

They initially started experiments with tender and ripe coconut water but found no observable activity.

“One of my native students said her elders at home used to say that young immature coconut can be smashed and the decoction drink has a healing effect on diarrhoea or intestinal disturbances. So we tried that and surprisingly, it showed very good activity against important pathogenic bacteria that cause diarrhoea,” reveals Dr. Mamatha about the first-of-its-kind research, and adds that “it’s just a preliminary study and I’m in touch with the incubation department for further studies on it.”

Dr. Mamatha adds there are published works on tender coconut water, coconut oil, husk of coconut and also the endocarp and their antibacterial activity.  The young immature tender coconut can be used as therapeutic agent against enteric pathogens. “It can cut the rising cost and harmful effects of antibiotics. It can also combat the emerging antibiotic resistance,” says the researcher.

Crude extract from young immature coconuts showed antimicrobial activity against the laboratory strains of vibrio, non-typhoidal salmonellae, shigella and pleisiomonas and clinical strains of non-typhoidal salmonellae, vibrio and pleisiomonas.

She says that the traditional folk medicine practioners were learnt to have refined the component and mixed with something and given as a tablet. “As the result is positive, we can formulate it and make it in the form of a capsule in the next phase or we can educate ayurvedic people or other traditional folk medicine practitioners about it.”

“These folk medicines are coming up because all the organisms are resistant to antibiotics. So a day might come when we will have no antibiotics to treat the patients. Drug resistance is a big problem in the world. In the meantime, these medicines have no side effects and toxicity. If we take any good antibiotic, there is a long-term toxicity associated with it,” Dr. Mamatha points out.

She affirms that traditional medicines could become an effective substitute for antibiotics in the long run. “These products have been used as medical herbs since long. There is no threat of side effects or toxicity related to these natural products. Research on natural products for chemical therapy will be the next big thing in the healthcare sector,” observes Dr Mamatha.

Tree of Life

Stressing the importance of Kalpavruksha (Tree of Life), which is common in Karnataka, Dr. Mamatha says 25 per cent of drugs in modern pharmacopeia is derived from plant sources.

This veteran professional’s research interests include molecular pathogenesis and antimicrobial resistance of bacterial infections in the gastrointestinal tract with special focus on Enteroaggregative E coli, Shigella, Clostridium difficile, Helicobacter pylori, Enteric Salmonella, Candida in blood stream infections, opportunistic infections in HIV patients, hospital infections, medicinal plants and their activity against Enteric pathogens, Rotaviraldiarrhoea and molecular diagnosis of Cryptosporidiasis.

She has travelled to more than 15 countries to present her works and delivered invited guest lectures in scientific meets and conferences.

Dr. Mamatha is the supervisor of the research team under the leadership of the dean Dr. Pragna Rao, Kasturba Medical College. The team consists of students Sreelaxmi, Rajani, Bhasharath, Sujith, Vignesh and Sohan.

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