FondsGoetheanum: Mistletoe

The development of new natural medicines needs innovative funding models

How do new medicines get developed and how are they financed? The usual pharmaceutical pathways start with the invention and manufacturing of new substances for the treatment of particular illnesses. Substances can only be patented if they are demonstrably invented, which means they must not occur naturally in this form.
The usual drug developing process is very costly and time-consuming. For a single new drug millions of individual substances need to be preselected in cell culture and animal testing and examined in detail before ten new preparations can be tested on humans in clinical studies. Of these ten new substances only one will remain that is effective and has tolerable side-effects.
Today one estimates that the development of a new drug will take fifteen to twenty years. The enormous costs involved can only be covered with exclusive patent protection. Patent protection means that the product in question can be sold at a price that will pay for the costs of development and reap profits as well.

Comparable conditions for research into natural medicines

This financial model does not work for natural medicines because natural substances are difficult to patent. The pharmaceutical industry is consequently hardly interested in developing natural medicines. Because of the legal situation, it is primarily university institutes and charitable institutions that are interested in the research and development of natural medicines, be it for academic, idealist or humanitarian reasons. Their projects need to be financed via endowments, private donations or sponsorships.
If patent alternatives or other funding models were available for research into natural medicines, the costs of healthcare could be reduced thanks to a wider range of natural medicines.

PD Dr sc. nat. Stephan Baumgartner


Nature’s healing treasure

We know them well, these home remedies: sage tea for sore throats, Iceland moss for coughs, fennel and camomile infusions for indigestion. But who discovered the healing properties of these plants?

The origins of many natural medicines, such as arnica, St. John’s wort, hawthorn, comfrey and calendula, are lost in the mists of the distant past. We find them mentioned in medieval herb books, even in ancient Roman, Greek or Persian records. But how did the early healers find out about their effects?


The prickly poppy. Its great popularity with local healers led to the development of a highly effective natural malaria drug.

Open eyes and awareness

A few years ago a team of scientists from universities in England, Switzerland and Mali developed a new effective drug against malaria made from a plant known as ‘prickly poppy’. The process of developing this drug took six years and cost less than half a million Swiss Francs in total. This is a fraction of the sums usually spent on developing a new drug.
The scientists in question interviewed the residents in various Malian villages, asking them how they traditionally treated malaria and how successful this treatment was. Because different traditional healers looked after the patients in the various villages, the strategies applied differed widely. However, the one treatment described by all healers as a hundred percent effective was a decoction made from the “prickly poppy” (Argemone).
The scientists involved conducted a clinical trial in order to determine the optimal dosage which turned out to be identical with the dosage used traditionally. A comparison between prickly poppy extract and the standard treatment (artesunate/amodiaquine) showed that the natural remedy was as effective but caused fewer side effects.
How did the traditional healers get the idea to make an extract from the prickly poppy? Did they just try it randomly? Or do traditional healers have other sources of knowledge? Could it be that the traditional healers from Mali are much more effective than our modern pharmaceutical industry?

The importance of intuition

As we can see from the example of mistletoe and the Celtic druids, natural remedies are often shrouded in lore. Could this point to different sources of knowledge, such as intuition, for instance?
Albert Einstein allegedly said, “Intuition is a sacred gift, the rational mind its faithful servant. It is bizarre that we now revere the servant but neglect the sacred gift.”
Rudolf Steiner – the founder of Anthroposophic Medicine – knew from intuition that the essence of mistletoe was suitable for the treatment of cancer. It was only decades later that scientists identified the active substances of mistletoe and documented their clinical efficacy. Did the traditional healers in Mali gain their knowledge in the same way as Rudolf Steiner? They had no science labs after all.
Could intuition still be a suitable source of knowledge in today’s pharmaceutical research and development? Purely pragmatic considerations of cost-effectiveness alone make this an option worth exploring. The costs of developing a new, conventionally produced chemical drug have risen from 100 million Francs in the 1970s to around 2 billion Francs today, and they will continue to rise. In the foreseeable future the healthcare systems of even richer countries, such as Switzerland, will hardly be able to afford such an exponential increase in costs.

The power of nature

The prickly poppy and mistletoe examples illustrate the great potential of natural medicines even for serious illnesses such as malaria and cancer. Nature provides a wealth of effective medicines that are not being fully exploited and that have few side effects. All we need to do is be interested in them and study them.

PD Dr. sc. nat. Stephan Baumgartner