Nature India | Indigenus

How haldi and litchi cooked up a storm

[Reproduced with permission from Hindu Business Line, column ‘Science and Sensibility’. Published: 1 March 2017]

Under the lens

Subhra Priyadarshini

Two stories, both involving American and Indian scientists, have renewed discussions on scientific rigour and ethics. The stories veer around two of our beloved things — haldi (turmeric) and litchi.

The substance that gives haldi its bright yellow hue — curcumin — has been a hot favourite of Indian scientists. They have found innumerable virtues of curcumin — anti-inflammatory, anti-malarial, anti-cancer and, most recently, as a piggyback on nanofibres to regenerate bone tissues.

Two of India's favourite things.

Two of India’s favourite things.

When some American scientists debunked the medicinal value of curcumin in a reputed international journal recently, they stirred up a hornet’s nest back home. The article concluded that there was no evidence, whatsoever, of the therapeutic benefits of curcumin and that it wasn’t worth wasting one’s energy and money on researching it to find a new drug.

India’s scientists have taken exception to this, considering that over 10,000 papers have been published and more than 120 clinical trials using curcumin are in various stages of completion. Yes, curcumin may not make for a classical drug going strictly by the tenets of medicinal chemistry, but it certainly qualifies as an ‘adjunct drug’ to treat some infectious diseases. The contention is: summarily dismissing curcumin research as wasteful would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. And that would bury a lot of remarkable science around the fragrant, yellow spice.

So, even as the dispute over curcumin’s candidature as a good research subject ensues, people across the world will continue to explore the benefits of ‘golden milk’. And Indian homes will continue to take any criticism of haldi with a pinch of salt.

Another controversy erupted around a red-peeled, juicy fruit that instantly transports one to the lazy summer afternoons of our childhoods. Litchis, you could gorge on them all afternoon. And most times, you skipped dinner afterwards brimming over with its sweet richness. Turns out, this innocent fruit-hogging and then not eating an evening meal, could be fatal. It kills a lot of children in Muzaffarpur region of Bihar, the litchi capital of India.

Scientists have been trying to fathom the cause of a mystery seasonal neurological disease outbreak in the region for years now. And some of them recently made a stunning revelation in Lancet: litchi fruits are laden with naturally occurring toxins — hypoglycin A and methylenecyclopropylglycine — that could actually trigger low glucose levels and metabolic derangement among children. Ironic, considering that litchi oozes sugar. The toxins embedded in the fruit apparently reverse all its sugariness.

But where’s the controversy? The dispute began when a set of scientists led by T Jacob John, a virologist earlier with the Christian Medical College Vellore, alleged that the Lancet study did not follow a basic ethical practice in science: acknowledging similar previous findings by his team. John and co-researcher Mukul Das called it ‘scientific misconduct’. Their contention: the Indo-US research group had failed to acknowledge somewhat similar results from 2014 — an act considered grossly unethical in science. True to its reputation, Lancet swung into action to figure out what went wrong in this case.

And that’s how the humble litchi taught our scientists a lesson in ethics.

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    Shyam Sunder Chatterjee said:

    To my judgement, such controversial discussions can be put to and end only when quantitative systems pharmacology and toxicology of food phytochemicals and their combinations are better understood. We have known since long that one mans food can be poison for others, and that not only the dose but also the lifestyle and eating habity of a person that dictates the efficacy and safety of all bioactive substances, phytochemicals or not. Drug discoverers and regulators must pay due attention to these facts, and for resolving such controversially discussed questions, the researchers must pay due attention to the physiological concept of “allostatic load”.