The Life of Neem

Sushruta: A Vital Resource in Ancient Medicine and Mythology

neem white back-flipNeem (Azadirachta Indica) is an ancient medicinal tree, celebrated for its remarkable healing properties as far back as 5,000 BCE. Described in ancient Indian Ayurvedic texts as ‘Sarva roga nivarini’ (the universal healer of all ailments) and ‘Nimba’ (giver of good health), neem’s name is ‘Arista’ in Sanskrit – meaning ‘perfect, complete and imperishable’ [1].

Throughout Indian history and culture, the neem tree has been imbued with spiritual significance and presented as a symbol of health. According to Hindu mythology, the neem tree was born through drops of Amrita (the elixir of immortality) sprinkled onto the Earth by divine beings known as Devas. Neem is  revered as one of the manifestations of the Mother Goddess, Kali or Durga, and deified as Neemari Devi. Another representation of the divine perceptions of neem comes in the form of Mariamman, the neem goddess who wields a neem leaf as a sword to strike down disease and illness [2].

The Siddha Medical system, from the Tamil Land, in the south of India, was the foremost medicinal system in the world. It is said to have originated with the Dravidian civilization in the legendary, and now submerged, ancient island of Kumari Kandam, between 10,000 and 4,000 BCE [3]The wisdom in the Tamil Citta, as this traditional medicine is also known, is said to have come from the Siddhars, or enlightened ones, such as Agathiyar, father of Siddha medicine. 350 year old palm leaf manuscripts attributed to this sage describe several remedies, using neem, to cure and treat a wide range of diseases. One example is the Agathiyar Gunavagadam, which prescribes the neem flowers as treatment for bile disease, the neem leaves for ulcers, and the bark for psychiatric disorders [4].

Further north, where Pakistan is today, the Indus Valley civilizations of the Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro civilizations were discovered in the beginning of the last century. The excavations of these ancient ruins uncovered the first solid proof (various therapeutic compounds) of the medicinal use of neem for small pox and chickenpox, long before any written records, between 2,600 and 1,800 BCE [5].

In the Thirumular Thirumantiram-Ennayiram, an ancient Tamil text, one of the earlier written mentions of neem comes to life in the poetic form of the era, circa 200 BCE [6].

“Oh Damsel of flowing tresses and slender forehead!
Hear you a miracle this!
In this water hidden in the body
Mix pepper, alma, turmeric and neem
Soft will your body be;
And dark thine hair on head”

Ancient works like the Sushruta Samhita and Charka Samhita, which compose the foundation of the holistic Ayurvedic Medicine, also state and maintain the healing properties of neem, where almost every part of the neem tree, from the seeds, roots, bark, leaves, flowers and oils, has been documented for medicinal use. In the ‘Upavana Vinoda’, a Sanskrit treatise of the 2nd century AD for agriculture and forestry, neem is cited as a cure for ailing soils, plants and livestock [7]. The ‘Brihat Samhita of Varahamihira’ of the 6th century AD contains chapter verses on plant medicines and recommends that the neem tree be planted near dwellings [8].

Even today, throughout rural areas in Asia, Africa and South and Central America, the neem tree is deemed the village pharmacy due to the wide range of medicinal, cosmetic and agricultural uses it accommodates. Now, the 21st century is finally explaining and uncovering the mysterious knowledge that has surrounded neem since time immemorial.

Neem’s Rediscovery in the Modern Era

Though known for centuries in rural settings across Asia as the ‘Village Pharmacy’, and while research into neem has been underway in India since the 1920s, it was only in 1959 that a German entomologist in Sudan made a groundbreaking observation. A locust plague surged near his area of study, ravishing all in its path, with exception of the neem tree. This discovery sparked global interest in neem, inspiring several of the world’s most prominent institutions to examine the tree’s agricultural and medicinal applications [9].

Early Innovations in Neem Research

    • 1983: The Indian and Agricultural Research Institute publishes ‘Neem in Agriculture’, an exploration of neem’s incredible potential in crop protection [10].
    • 1984: The Indian and Agricultural Research Institute publishes its first quarterly ‘Neem Newsletter’, examining the global scientific community’s achievements in neem research.
    • 1992: The United States National Academy of Sciences publishes ‘Neem: A Tree for Solving Global Problems’, further establishing international recognition for the tree’s applications and potential [11].
    • 1993: The Indian and Agricultural Research Institute’s ‘Neem in Agriculture (Revised)’
    • 1993: The Indian Society for Pesticide Science publishes “Neem: Research and Development” which serves as a catalogue of neem research to date and areas in which the science needs development [12].
    • 1995: The University of Giessen (Germany) publishes “The Neem Tree”, which is immediately acclaimed for showcasing the incredible potential of neem in agriculture and healthcare [13].
    • 2007: Scientists from the University of Cambridge synthesized azadirachtin, a highly complex chemical structure found in neem that is responsible for many of the plant’s agricultural applications [14].

Over the past twenty years, several thousand papers have been published on the agricultural and medical properties of neem. Many of these papers have been published in India, but more recently research has been undertaken in the US and Europe from organizations such as the Mayo Clinic [15], the University of Oxford [16] and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [17].

Fully recognized as an effective and natural insecticide effective against 500 species of insects, it is now understood that neem acts on the hormonal systems of pests, thereby eliminating the possibility of resistance in future generations. Neem also improves the organic content of soil by reducing its alkalinity, producing organic acids in decomposition and increasing water-holding capacity. The ability to use neem as a natural pesticide and fertilizer will have a long-term positive impact on farmers and their farmland, whether or not they cultivate crops organically. [18]

Neem has yet to make the leap to be used in mainstream conventional medicines. As society looks for alternative, non-synthetic methods, neem is becoming an effective option for those seeking a natural cure for health problems ranging from malaria, diabetes and AIDS to cancer. One of the major advantages of the use of neem in healthcare will derive from its use as an alternative feed in livestock, replacing the proliferation of antibiotic use in this sector and becoming an integral instrument in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

A large number of neem-based pest control, healthcare and medicinal products have now started appearing in the global market. Several of these are registered in the US and other European countries for their diverse applications in agriculture and healthcare.

A History of Neem Patents

Neem related extraction processes and products continue to be patented across Japan, the USA and European countries. Terumo Corporation obtained the first ever US patent in 1983 for a therapeutic agent derived from neem bark. In 1985, Robert Larson obtained a patent for his preparation of neem seed extract that was approved for use in the US market by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Three years later, Robert Larson sold the patent on his neem extraction process to the US company W.R. Grace (presently Certis). Having gathered the necessary patents and clearance from the EPA, W.R. Grace commercialized the product by setting up a manufacturing plant in collaboration with P.J. Margo Pvt. Ltd in India. Aside from W.R. Grace, AgriDyne Technologies Inc also marketed neem-based products. A large number of companies then developed stabilized neem products and made them available commercially in India. At this time, neem was geographically confined to a few countries, as the number of patents filed was limited.

W.R. Grace and AgriDyne were the first to strengthen global awareness of neem and its properties. The largest number of patents has been granted in the USA (54), followed by Japan (35), Australia (23) and India (14). The majority of patents are for neem’s application in crop protection (63%), followed by healthcare (13%), cosmetics (6%), industrial (5%), veterinary care (5%) and others (8%). This trend is also shown in country-wide granted patents. For example, in the US, out of 54 patents granted, 31 were for crop protection. Globally, Certis – W.R. Grace currently own the largest number of neem patents (49), followed by Rohm & Haas (36), CSIR-India (14), Trifolio (9), Bayer (8) and EID Parry (6).

In the early 90s, the European Patent Office granted patents to the US Department of Agriculture and W.R. Grace. However, on the basis that products derived from natural resources cannot be patented, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected the patent. Despite this, the neem tree has become recognized across the world as a commercial opportunity by innovators. Now that the demand for organic produce is becoming mainstream, neem will rise in popularity in many sectors, but especially in organic agriculture.

The Tea Tree of Australia, Gingko Biloba of China, Ginseng of Korea, Guarana of the Amazon and Aloe Vera of Mexico are all extremely profitable. With such diversity of essential uses, neem has the potential to emerge as the biggest player of them all.

[1] International Journal of Advancement in Engineering Technology, Management and Applied Science, Vol. 1 Issue 5,October 2014
[2] Shakti M. Gupta. Plant Myths and Traditions in India (2001)
[3] Mukherjee, Pulok K. "Evaluation of Indian traditional medicine." Drug Information Journal (2001)
[4] Kumar, Venugopalan Santhosh, and Visweswaran Navaratnam. "Neem (Azadirachta indica): Prehistory to contemporary medicinal uses to humankind." Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine 3.7 (2013)
[5] Lilot, Loetitia S. "The Neem Tree: The Village Pharmacy." Ethnobotanical Leaflets 2000.1 (2000)
[6] Tirumantiram A Tamil scriptural Classic. By Tirumular. Tamil Text with English Translation and Notes, B. Natarajan. Madras, Sri Ramakrishna Math (1991)
[7] Majumdar, G. P. "Upavana-Vinoda." a Sans Krit treatise on arbori-horticulture). Indian Research Institute, Calcutta (1935)
[8] Shastri, Ajay Mitra. "India as seen in the." Brihat Samhita of Varahamihira (1969)
[9] National Research Council. Neem: A Tree for Solving Global Problems. The Minerva Group, Inc. (2002) 
[10] Parmar, B. S., and R. P. Singh. "Neem in agriculture." Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi 85 (1993). 
[11] National Research Council. Neem: a tree for solving global problems. The Minerva Group, Inc.,(2002) 
[12] Randhawa, N. S., and B. S. Parmar. "Neem: research and development."Neem: research and development (1993) 
[13] Schmutterer, Heinrich. The neem tree Azadirachta indica A. Juss. and other meliaceous plants: sources of unique natural products for integrated pest management, medicine and industry (1995) 
[14] Veitch, Gemma E., et al. "Synthesis of azadirachtin: a long but successful journey." Angewandte Chemie International Edition 46.40 (2007) 
[15] Wu, Qiang, et al. "Preclinical evaluation of the supercritical extract of azadirachta indica (neem) leaves in vitro and in vivo on inhibition of prostate cancer tumor growth." Molecular cancer therapeutics 13.5 (2014) 
[16] Khalid, Sami A., Helmut Duddeck, and Manuel Gonzalez-Sierra. "Isolation and characterization of an antimalarial agent of the neem tree Azadirachta indica." Journal of natural products 52.5 (1989) 
[17] Klocke, James A., et al. "Grayanoid diterpene insect antifeedants and insecticides from Rhododendron molle." Phytochemistry 30.6 (1991) 
[18] Koul, Opender. "Neem: a global perspective." Neem: today and in the new millennium. Springer Netherlands, (2004)