| In search of the magic plant
Scientists investigating what they believe is the mythical Sanjeevani herb mentioned in the epic Ramayana have discovered that it can protect living cells from the lethal effects of heat and biological stress.
Laboratory experiments have indicated that unknown substances from a herb called Selaginella bryopteris can promote cell growth and protect them from destructive biological injuries.
Some researchers have speculated that Selaginella is Sanjeevani, used by Ram to revive his brother Lakshman injured in battle. But others caution that the identity of the mythical herb remains unknown.
Researchers from the Madhav Institute of Technology and Sciences, Gwalior, and the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad, examined the effect of the herb on insect cells and on cells taken from mice.
To mimic the way the herb is used in traditional medicine, the scientists obtained the herbal extract by leaving the herb submerged overnight in an earthen pot. Then they added the extract to cells maintained in a chemical broth.
“The extract protects the cells from the harmful effects of heat, ultraviolet rays and destructive chemicals called oxidants,” said Nand Sah, professor and head of biotechnology at the Madhav Institute.
Ordinarily, living cells exposed to extreme heat, ultraviolet rays or oxidants such as hydrogen peroxide stop growing and, eventually, die. The studies on the cells carried out in Hyderabad have shown that adding the herbal extract into the mixture of cells can suppress cell death caused by ultraviolet radiation and oxidants as well as reverse heat-triggered growth arrest.
The researchers have reported their findings in the latest issue of the Journal of Biosciences, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences.
Scientists concede that experiments on laboratory cells cannot be extrapolated to either animals or people. “This is a first step towards helping this traditional herb gain some scientific credibility,” Sah said.
However, he said Selaginella bryopteris is already used in traditional medicine in different parts of India. People use the herb to get relief during extreme heat and to treat menstrual irregularities and jaundice.
“Many plants with dark green leaves make a class of substances called complex terpenoids which have anti-oxidant properties,” said Dr Suman Khanuja, director of the Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, Lucknow. The effects of Selaginella, thus, aren’t really surprising. “But there is no hard evidence to label either this plant or any other plant as Sanjeevani,” Khanuja said.
Sah said how the herbal extract functions is still unclear. Preliminary studies indicate that the Selaginella extract contains a protein. “We’re now trying to analyse the make-up of this protein,” he said.
Khanuja said his laboratory is part of a national effort launched years ago by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research to seek out traditional medicinal plants and analyse their ingredients to scientifically verify traditional claims.
While some references in scientific literature list Selaginella as Sanjeevani, Khanuja said, a search of ancient texts currently underway in CSIR laboratories has thus far not revealed any plant that can be certified as Sanjeevani.