News Article

Unlocking the Medicinal Secrets in Plants

By Aces Staff
Jul 2, 2003

July 2, 2003

URBANA -- Two Asian countries may have growing wild in their pastures and on their mountainsides the secrets to preventing numerous human diseases. Uzbekistan and its neighbor, Kyrgyzstan, which together, are about the size of California and South Dakota, are teeming with wild flowers and plants that have been curing ailments for centuries, but without formal scientific testing and the quality control needed to distribute them to the rest of the world.

Researchers from Rutgers University and the University of Illinois are working together on a project that will ultimately bring the medicinal properties of Asian plants to the public. "The Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan people have anecdotal evidence that certain plants can cure or prevent diseases," said Mary Ann Lila, a plant scientist at the University of Illinois. "But they don't have the infrastructure. They don't have the ability to select the phytochemicals that are effective in a plant and standardize it so that each bottle of the resulting drug is identical in quality and potency."

Lila explained that when plants are stressed, they produce phytochemicals (plant-produced chemicals) to protect themselves against a fungus or other pest. These same chemicals can produce protective responses in humans against a similar fungus or disease. Lila simulates in the lab, situations that will cause the plant to produce these chemical products. "If we relied on harvesting the plants from the mountainside when we needed more, we would soon deplete the resource and the effectiveness could not be controlled -- besides which, the plant may not be producing the chemical at the time we pick it. In the lab, we can control the conditions in order to more conclusively investigate what conditions trigger a plant to produce the protective chemicals."

By relying on the technical capabilities of Lila's lab at the U of I and her colleagues at Rutgers, the mysteries of the Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan plants can be unlocked so that these countries will be able to take it to the next level -- from anecdotal evidence to reliable scientific data and ultimately to a drug that would be available to the world.

One plant the project will examine works like Ephedrine, but without the problems associated with that drug. If its secret can be unlocked and produced in a form that the public can rely upon, it may be used to prevent fatigue, impotence and osteoporosis. Another plant, associated with many legends and folkloric tales about its magic powers, will be studied for its potential to have an effect on diabetes, respiratory infections, and premenstrual and postmenopausal symptoms.

The entire project will encompass 10 major therapeutic areas and close to 60 disease-specific targets in humans. Some of these include heart and gastric diseases, cancer, functional disturbances of the central nervous system, anemia, blood disorders, diabetes, gynecological disorders and skin diseases.

"This is not a commercial enterprise, but a gift to mankind," Lila said. "These countries have hidden knowledge that is not available to the public and they are eager to have the U.S. federal government support for this unprecedented collaboration. Most of these plants have medicinal properties for which there are no counterparts in synthetic medicine."

Lila said that she and her colleagues from Rutgers were the first American biologists to step foot into the collaborating Asian institutions, including Samarqand University and the Kyrgyzstan Agrarian Institute. "And, for both institutions, it was the first time that any scientist from the West had proposed large-scale, long-term collaboration, supported with funds from the U.S. government," Lila said.

Funding for this research is provided by the National Institutes of Health, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation with matching funds from corporate sponsors.