New Illness. Traditional Healing.

November 03, 2011
Traditional medicine

In the last decade, Cree communities in northern Quebec have experienced a 150% increase in the numbers of people over twenty affected by type II diabetes, so that almost 20% of the population suffers from the condition. In the late 1990s, elders disturbed by this trend asked the Cree Health Board about incorporating traditional medicines into western methods of healing, especially as many people affected by the disease were finding relief through traditional approaches.

That original query led to bigger things. “Some people heard about what we were doing in our community and decided to investigate if there were plants that might have an impact on some diabetic symptoms,” says Kathleen Wootton, Deputy Chief of Mistissini. “For instance, if someone complained of a symptom like tingling in the hands, what plants did the traditional healer use to address that symptom?” Since 2003, the CIHR Team in Aboriginal Anti-Diabetic Medicine, led by Université du Montréal pharmacology professor Pierre Haddad, has been exploring that very question to determine the anti-diabetic potential of traditional medicine. The project, which was renewed with a larger grant in 2006, also involves elders and traditional healers, Cree Health Board staff, and researchers from Université du Montréal, University of Ottawa, McGill University, and the Montreal Botanical Gardens.

Initial collaborations between university researchers and traditional healers in Mistissini and Nemaska turned up seventeen plants that seemed especially promising, and another two were added after surveys with healers in Whapmagoostui and Waskaganish. “Even though these communities are quite distant from one another, with different environments, over half the plants used by healers were the same, so we were seeing good coherence,” says Haddad. “It’s a true system of health knowledge.”

Once these plants were identified, they were collected under the guidance of elders and then sent to labs for analysis and tests. The results were impressive: early tests show some plant extracts to be as powerful as commercial drugs, even when being used in relatively crude form. “Some of the plants help lower blood sugar, making the body temperature go up a bit,” explains Haddad. “A lot of them seem to make the body burn off excess energy, which is important with diabetes, where you have too much energy coming in for that which is going out.” Researchers are also trying to identify which of each plant’s molecular components has the strongest therapeutic impact. “So far we have not discovered any unusual compounds,” says Haddad. “But even though the components we are looking at are already known, their activity is new.”

Working under the guidance and control of traditional healers, the project has recently begun clinical studies that integrate traditional and western medicine, creating a type of therapy in greater harmony with Cree culture. Healers treat their patients, with physicians providing physical check-ups. Meanwhile, the researchers take monthly blood samples and pay attention to body weight, blood pressure, and similar parameters. “The clinical trials enable us to do two things at once: to observe people taking traditional medicine and also to come up with protocols on how traditional healers and clinical staff can interact with each other,” Haddad explains.

Traditional knowledge is valuable, and its protection has been a major issue, especially as this research has commercial potential. In October, after over six years, the Cree and the university researchers finally reached an intellectual property agreement. “We wanted to protect our confidentiality and ensure that anything new coming from traditional knowledge is approved before it is released publicly,” says Wootton. “It was very important to make sure that our knowledge was protected. We didn’t want to have the same experience other indigenous groups have had, especially in South America, where researchers were plying people for their knowledge of local plants and then leaving the indigenous people out of the benefit sharing. Our final research agreement states that we will have co-ownership on any information developed from traditional knowledge.”

The agreement has strong criteria for protecting this knowledge. For instance, before researchers send manuscripts to academic journals, they must prepare plain-language summaries, translate them into Cree, and have them approved by traditional healers and elders. If there is anything concerning traditional medicine that the elders wouldn’t want published, then the academic researchers revise the text and repeat the process. “So only after we get approval from the community and elders do we submit the paper to journals,” says Haddad. The process is a bit slower than the academic researchers were used to at first , but they have caught up, and a dozen papers were published in academic journals in the last year.

The agreement, which gives the Cree more than the fundamental research rights and benefits aboriginals are asking for worldwide through the Convention on Biodiversity, will serve as a model for similar endeavours, and is a sign of good will and understanding on all sides. “This research is really a story about people and relationships,” says Haddad. “It has been a great project, and a really exciting one. It is succeeding at all levels.”

Related Links:
Project website
Agreement with Crees could set precedent for research | University Affairs
"The Healing" by Patrick McDonagh, in The Walrus Magazine, January/February 2011