Indigenous Knowledge Leads to Likely Treatment for Episodic Ataxia

I was hanging out with some neighbors the other night, and the subject of gaming came up, along with the fact that the first guild I was in, playing WoW in my college years, was called “Ataxia”; my neighbors, being doctors, did a bit of a double-take. For those who don’t know, ataxia is basically a set of neuromuscular symptoms associated with a few different neurological conditions. I don’t remember why the guild’s founder had chosen that name. The term covers balance issues, coordination issues, sensory problems, and more. It’s pretty broad, and from what I can tell, even if the underlying condition isn’t especially dangerous, those symptoms that are called ataxia are a problem all by themselves. That means that being able to make them go away can be a huge victory – it lets the patient regain control of their body.

I mention all of that, because researchers from the University of California – Irvine have found that plant extracts used by the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations in the Pacific Northwest are a viable treatment, specifically for type 1 episodic ataxia. This is something that could help people all around the world, and it’s a good reminder of the importance of biodiversity, Indigenous knowledge, and Indigenous rights. I’ll get into that stuff a little, but first, let’s hear from the researchers:

“Episodic Ataxia 1 (EA1) is a movement disorder caused by inherited mutations in the human KCNA1 gene, which encodes Kv1.1, a voltage-gated potassium channel essential for normal function of the human nervous system,” said Geoffrey W. Abbott, PhD, vice dean of basic science research and professor in the Department of Physiology & Biophysics at the UCI School of Medicine. “We found that extracts of stinging nettle, bladderwrack kelp and Pacific ninebark can all correct function of the mutation-carrying proteins causing a specific form of ataxia.”

Abbott’s research team also found that two compounds contained in these plants, tannic acid and gallic acid, are each able to rescue activity of the EA1-linked mutation-carrying ion channel proteins.

“The plant compounds are the first known compounds to rescue the activity of Kv1.1 carrying EA1-linked loss-of-function sequence variants,” said Abbott. “Gallic acid in particular is of therapeutic interest because it is already available over the counter as a nutritional supplement and is very well tolerated in toxicity studies.”

Individuals with ataxia exhibit abnormal gait, slurring, eye movement abnormalities, difficulties with balance and walking, tremors, and disruption of fine motor skills.

“These mutations can cause other disorders, including epilepsy, and so there is therapeutic potential for those conditions as well,” said Abbott. “We have discovered that where modern synthetic drug development techniques have failed to produce a drug that directly rescues EA1-linked mutant channel function, traditional botanical medicine developed by North American First Nation peoples has succeeded.”

Further research is now needed to explore the efficacy of the plant-derived compounds in preclinical and clinical studies.

“We have made a mouse model of a relatively severe form of human EA1 so that we can test the efficacy and safety of gallic acid and also whole plant extracts,” said Abbott. “If the preclinical studies go well, our goal is to move to clinical trials. Concurrently, we are synthesizing and testing other plant compounds and derivatives to discover other compounds with potential for treating EA1 and related disorders.”

This is really neat, and I hope clinical trials go smoothly and quickly, for the sake of everyone this could help. I also hope, if this bears out, that the researchers get due credit.

That said, I have a couple thoughts. The first is that, as I said earlier, this underscores one of the many reasons why biodiversity is important to us, as humans. There are lots of those reasons, but the fact that we keep discovering new medicines in our fellow organisms is nothing to sneeze at. That is also why Indigenous rights and Indigenous land management practices are so important. As with biodiversity, this isn’t the only reason those things are important. It shouldn’t need to be said, but these days, it feels like it’s better to be explicit, so: Indigenous people deserve rights and autonomy because they are people. Beyond that, Indigenous land management practices tend to shape ecosystems to be beneficial to humans, while actively maintaining and promoting ecosystem health and biodiversity.

This is also why it is absolutely fucked that this discovery will probably end up being the private property of some pharmaceutical corporation, for the prescription version, and some big supplement corporation for the herbal version. I feel like I should apologize for always coming back to capitalism, but it’s hard to talk about big problems in this world without mentioning the economic system that dominates most of the planet.

And so, in addition to biodiversity and Indigenous rights, this is also a good reason to end capitalism. This knowledge comes, in part, from people who were nearly erased in support of capitalism, and the medicine comes from wild plants, and the ecosystems they inhabit. I have no problem with the notion of some sort of socially born price for the work that goes into turning plant into medicine, but that should never be a barrier to access for those who need it. Likewise, capitalism has proven to be disastrous for biodiversity and ecosystem health. We will never know exactly what we’ve lost, in the wanton, profit-driven destruction of so many ecosystems, but looking at discoveries like this, it seems certain that it’s not nothing. This world has so much to offer us, and we can enjoy its bounty, as well as marvels of our own invention, without destroying everything in the process. The path we’re on will lead us to lose everything, but if we have the courage to take a new, and different path, we stand to gain everything despite how close we stand to oblivion.

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  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the first guild I was in, playing WoW in my college years, was called “Ataxia”… I don’t remember why the guild’s founder had chosen that name.

    “Attacks ya!”?

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