Synthesizing medicine from natural substances is a complex, difficult process.

Synthesizing medicine from natural substances is a complex, difficult process. Generating synthetic compounds from kambo are no exception. Image Source: Wikimedia user Jacopo Werther.

I consider myself well-informed about most psychedelics currently available, but a few months ago, kambo was a completely new substance to me. Intrigued, I began digging into the research on the subject. As I clicked through the search results, one thing that continually struck me was the long list of ailments kambo could potentially treat. This powerful, versatile medicine seemed to have properties that would positively affect almost anything a person could suffer from! The more I read, the more interested I became in how kambo could benefit the particular conditions I struggle with, and what synthetic compounds from kambo could do for others.

But another thing also became clear: a kambo ceremony can be a physically demanding experience.  Although I realize that if I work with an experienced practitioner, I will likely have a positive experience, the idea of extreme purging—a quintessential aspect of the traditional kambo ceremony—is something I’m not quite sure my body is ready for. I wondered if there might be a way to limit the purging while still getting the main positive effects of a kambo treatment. Turns out, I’m not the only one to have this thought, as reducing the challenging side effects is the goal of most Western researchers who are attempting to make medicines derived from kambo. But it will likely be a long time before scientists are effectively able to replicate the benefits of kambo—if they ever can—due to issues such as insufficient funding and the complexity of kambo itself.

The Complexity of Natural Substances

Natural substances and traditional medicine are the inspiration of most Western pharmacology. Most medicines are made by either isolating one aspect of a natural substance or synthesizing 1-2 naturally occurring compounds. The benefit of this method is that it allows Western medicine to get rid of some negative side effects of natural medicines while making the desired effects more concentrated. But at the same time, this approach of picking and choosing the preferred parts of the substance ignores the fact that natural substances are infinitely more complex than their synthesized counterparts.

A classic example of this is the attempt to synthesize the beneficial aspects of marijuana. Several cannabinoids have been synthesized with the idea that researchers can isolate the curative properties of marijuana while limiting the “high” that users experience. Unfortunately, this has mostly resulted in failed attempts. Either the synthetic compounds are not as effective as natural marijuana or they do not have marijuana’s natural safety features which prevent overdosing. Researchers were able to replicate the effects of marijuana, but they were unable to replicate the nuances that cause marijuana to only partially bond with receptors in the brain and metabolize quickly. This is likely because of the complex way that several parts of natural marijuana interact to limit its effects.

With kambo,researchers are dealing with a very complex compound. It has several dozen peptides (proteins) contained within it, and at least 7% of them are assumed to be bio-available, meaning they react with the human body. Of kambo’s peptides, nine of them are currently being studied, and these peptides tend to work in conjunction. For example, vessel dilators in kambo increase blood circulation and allow other peptides to cross the blood-brain barrier more effectively. Until we have mapped out the exact chemical makeup of kambo, it will be impossible to tell exactly how the compounds within it interact, which can make it dangerous and ineffective to replicate. And mapping out each peptide and figuring out how it interacts with the body is a complicated, lengthy process. As a result, isolating kambo’s peptides could take a substantial amount of time and, due to the complexity of the substance, the synthesized result may still not function quite as successfully as in its natural state.

The Focus On Treating One Symptom At a Time

Many scientific researchers would likely be interested in understanding kambo as a whole. In fact, there are currently studies being arranged in Brazil to apply Western research methods to traditional uses of kambo. But the standard approach to Western medicine favors medications that are less complex and treat one symptom at a time because it gives doctors more control over the management of symptoms, limits side-effects, and allows for more delicate manipulation of dosage.

Kambo can treat a wide range of symptoms and ailments, such as depression, migraines, and cancer. It is highly unlikely that you suffer from all of these conditions, so you may be interested in a synthetic compound that targets your specific disease and has fewer side effects. But because of this desire to treat one symptom or ailment at a time, most research teams (which are funded by pharmaceutical companies) concentrate on 1-2 aspects of kambo instead of trying to understand it as a whole. This makes it highly unlikely that a synthetic kambo will be effectively produced but rather a few derivatives of kambo that may or may not be as safe and effective as kambo itself. And by creating a more mellow kambo derivative, we may end actually end up missing out on the restorative, cleansing properties that can only be achieved by the deep purging that kambo offers.

The Race for Patents

Since most research teams are privately funded, the ultimate goal of most kambo research is to create a financial return. Companies want to isolate and synthesize compounds that can be legally patented in order to ensure they are in control of the production and distribution of future products based on those compounds. This approach tends to favor research that leads to simple, fast synthesis of compounds as opposed to a slower, more thorough study of the intricacies of the natural substance. Since the natural compound cannot be patented, there is actually little interest on the part of pharmaceutical companies in understanding how the complete, natural substance interacts with humans. Because of this lack of interest and funding, it is difficult for research teams to get approval to do more general studies with kambo.

Kambo is an exciting substance, and, eventually, synthetic compounds from kambo could be involved in creating various vaccines and treatments for a multitude of ailments. But at the moment, research is still in its beginning phases, so it is unlikely that effective medications are going to be isolated from the substance in the near future. Luckily, kambo is still available in its natural form and can be used to treat a wide range of conditions. Understanding the complexity of kambo reminds us of the importance of considering safe, therapeutic ways to use the natural compound, such as making sure practitioners are thoroughly trained in both traditional usage and Western applications of the medicine. At the same time, we can support ethical, publically funded research into kambo as a whole substance as opposed to picking it apart into its most easily patentable pieces.