We have a good deal of literature on herbal medicine, which is even recognized, within a certain frame, in Western medicine. However, most people thinking of herbal medicine think of herbs – perhaps logically! But when we look at the giant pharmacy that is nature, which has been equipped with various cures for human needs, we see that not only herbs, but also animals and minerals, have a role to play. By focusing solely on herbs, we fail to appreciate the world of animals.
History is rich in examples of human health benefitting from animals – this is called zoo-therapy. Hippocrates, who lived during the 5th and 4th centuries BC, used cow’s milk, chicken eggs, mammal horns, and sea sponges for treatments. We know that about a thousand years ago, the Mayans used fly larvae to treat gangrenous wounds. In Mexico, bees, ants, chickens, and other animals have been used to treat different diseases since ancient times. In traditional Chinese medicine, it has been recorded that more than 1500 types of animals were used for medical purposes.
In ancient Egypt, historical sources refer to the use of cow’s milk, honey, lizard blood, ox organs, swallow liver, and bat wings, as well as ember and musk essences, to treat ailments and diseases. Likewise, it is reported that in Mesopotamia during the Assyrian and Babylonian periods fish oil, wax and honey, mongoose blood, tortoise shell, goat skin, the dungs of sheep, dear, and birds, and animal fats were all used as medicines or balms.
In the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean regions, 99 substances of animal origin have been used as medicine, from the early Middle Ages up to the present day. In the Islamic world as well, 52 different animal-derived powders and pastes were used from the tenth century until the end of the Ottoman Empire. It is recorded that 77 of those animal-derived products continued to be used in the twentieth century as well (Lev 2006, 2:1-11).
Throughout history, there have been seven essential animal products commonly used for medical purposes: honey, wax, viper venom, beaver testicles, musk deer oil, coral, and ambergris. The first three of these are common substances and thus easily found, but the latter four are rare and expensive.
In contemporary research, more than 230 animal species have been used for experimental purposes. Increased sensitivity to animal rights in modern societies has resulted in certain limitations on animal products. But recently, the search for alternative cures has led to a renewed interest in folk medicine.
It is believed that the following substances are good for the following ailments: goat’s milk for coughing; quail eggs for treating lung diseases like asthma, bronchitis, and labored breathing; the powder obtained from the outer shell of the cuttlefish for cataracts; camel oil for psoriasis, eczema, ankle sprains, and hemorrhoids; hedgehog meat: epilepsy and gonorrhea; medical leeches for venal diseases. Various uses of yoghurt and fish oil is confirmed by modern medicine as well.
The rich structure of animal products
Animal tissues and bodily fluids contain many compounds that are synthesized by passing through more complex processes, at least in comparison to their herbal counterparts. For about half a century, scientists have been researching animal derived biologic agents with anti-tumor effects. Of the 252 essential chemical substances chosen for research by the WHO, 11% are of herbal origin and 8.7% are of animal origin (Marques 1997, 1:4). 27 of the 150 prescription drugs used in the US are of animal origin (World Resource Institute 2000, 389). Some 15-20% of substances benefited by Ayurvedic medicine of India are animal-derived products. In the city of Bahia in Brazil, more than 180 medicinal animals were recorded (Alves 2011, 7:9).
Since ancient times, poisons have been known for their medical value. Poisons contain various protein compounds, enzymes, peptides, and small amounts of non-protein secretions. These complex mixtures are stored in specific poison cells, tissues, or glands in the bodies of poisonous animals.
As the active substances that form the contents of a poison are very effective, even in very low concentrations, they actually bear real value for biomedical research. These substances give hope to researchers seeking to treat different hematologic, autoimmune, infectious, cardiovascular, cancerous, neuro-muscular, and psychotic diseases.
Let’s look at one example.
All frog skins are more or less poisonous. In the past, the only thing humans knew about frog skins was that we shouldn’t touch them. Research conducted about frogs revealed that the poisonous compounds found on different skins contain various different substances, and some of these have anti-cancerous and antibiotic effects. Surprisingly, the alkaloid Epibatidine, which was derived from the skin of the frog Epipedobatus tricolor, was proven to be 200 times more effective at curing pain than morphine. Certain substances derived from the skin of the night frog (Bufo viridis) enhanced heartbeat rhythm. Similarly, another toxin obtained from the skin of the Indian land frog (Bufo melanostictus) slowed down the reproduction of cancer cell cultures.
Man’s best foe?
According to the Bible, Satan deceived Eve and Adam by assuming the likeness of a serpent. Similarly, in the Islamic tradition of interpreting dreams, seeing a snake is interpreted as seeing an enemy. However, it is a concrete fact that our old enemy can become a useful source of healing when handled wisely. Contemporary research keeps opening up new medicinal possibilities for snake-derived substances.
Many different kinds of snake venom have been proven to be effective as anti-tumor agents. The different enzymes found in snake venoms either work their anti-tumor effect directly or by playing a reinforcing role for the body’s immune system.
The substance salmosin, obtained from the Korean snake Agkistrodon halys brevicaudus, prevents the increase of tumor cells and stops the formation of veins to feed these tumors. Contorstrostatin, a substance derived from the southern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix), was found to hold promise as a lung cancer treatment; it prevented tumor growth in experimental mice with cancer, helping them to survive longer. A heat resistant protein obtained from a viper (Daboia russelli russelli) led to a significant decrease in leukemic cell lines.
Snake venoms have also shown promise as anti-depressants, tranquilizers, pain-killers, and heart stimulants. A pain killer named Hannalgesin was even produced from the poison of the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), one of the most feared snakes.
But it’s not just snakes who could help humans: other poisonous animals might hold medical secrets, too. The PIM1 and PIM2 derived from the emperor scorpion (Pandinus imperator) have a strong anti-bacterial effect against the B. subtilus and E. coli types of bacteria (Kuhn-Nentwig 2003: 60:2651-2668). And in an ironic twist of fate, scientists have begun to “leech off” helpful substances from medical leeches, and are using them to treat blood clotting.
Treasures of the sea
A potential medical treasure lies under the sea. It’s not gold or jewels, but rather the treasure of substances found in various sea creatures, including sea snails, mosses, sponges, and even sharks.
Chitin, a substance derived from shellfish, has many medical uses. Studies have reported its anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-cancerous, and anti-ulcerous effects. The latest research has revealed another possible field of use for chitin: treating kidney problems (Sato et al, 2008, pp. 405-417).
This essay could be extended indefinitely. Considering we’re discussing treasures of the sea, I’d like to end with an allusion to Jules Vernes’ story, “Mysterious Island.” In the story, a group of outcasts are stranded on an island. Despite this, everything they need to survive seems to magically appear. The supplies are being provided by someone they cannot see, but whose presence they recognize by witnessing their deeds. When a young man suffers from malaria, his friends find out that someone has placed quinine – the very cure to malaria – on the table.
Our situation in this world is no different to the situation on the island. The main difference is that our cures are not placed on the table, but in different places around the globe.
Alves, R.R.N., Alves, N.H. (2011): The faunal drugstore: Animal-based remedies used in traditional medicines in Latin America. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 7: 9.
Barrow, C., Shahidi, F. (eds). CRC Press, Taylor&Francis Group.
Hunt, B., Vincent, A.C.J. (2006): Scale and sustainability of marine bioprospecting for pharmaceuticals. Ambio 35 (2): 57-64.
Kuhn-Nentwig, L. (2003): Antimicrobial and cytolitic peptides of venomous arthropods. Cell. Mol. Life Sci. 60: 2651-2668.
Lev, E. (2006): Healing with animals in the Levant from the 10th to the 18th century. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 2: 1-11.
Marques, JGW. 1997. Fauna medicinal: recurso do ambiente ou ameaça à biodiversidade? Mutum 1: 4.
Rasmussen, R. S., Morrissey, M. T. (2008): Chitin and chitosan. In: Marine nutraceuticals and functional foods. p. 155-182. Barrow, C., Shahidi, F. (eds). CRC Press, Taylor&Francis Group.
Sato, K., Kitahashi, T., Itho, C., Tsutsumi, M. (2008): Shark cartilage: potential for therapeutic application for cancer-review article. In: Marine nutraceuticals and functional foods.
World Resources Institute. 2000. World Resources Report 2000-2001. People and ecosystems: the fraying web of life. Washington D.C.: World Resources Institute.