MU receives $7.6 million for botanical research center

Thursday, October 7, 2010 | 6:25 p.m. CDT; updated 9:34 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 7, 2010
MU professor Dennis Lubahn, who teaches biochemistry and child health, is director of the botanical research center.

COLUMBIA - MU has been chosen as one of five universities in the country to create a botanical research center and received $7.6 million from the National Institutes of Health to do it.

The grant will help a team of MU scientists study the effects of five herbal medicines in animals with the hope that human clinical trials will follow. Flinstones vitamins and flaxseed oil, beeswax and barley — dietary supplements such as these bring in $27 billion each year, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.

The five supplements being studied are:

  • Garlic
  • Soy
  • Elderberry
  • Picrorhiza
  • Sutherlandia

Dennis Lubahn, a biochemistry and child health professor at MU, is leading the study and is director of the botanical research center, according to a press release. Lubahn said the research is important to legitimize the benefits of supplements people take every day and find new uses for them.

“Eighty percent of the world uses herbal medicine as a primary form of medicine,” Lubahn said. “When it’s not possible to do anything about some disease, people turn to alternatives.”

This is where the supplements come in, Lubahn said.

Many products have not been tested to prove their effectiveness, he said. Unfounded health claims might be made about supplements but are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Claims that are true are often too vague, offering only to “promote health,” he said.

“It’d be nice to provide some evidence that one dietary supplement might work better than the others,” Lubahn said. “So, this (research) would provide evidence for that.”

Lubahn said Americans are particularly interested in this evidence.

“In America, the mindset is, unless you can tell them how it works, it can’t be working,” he said.

Show Me the Science

The grant will cover research over five MU divisions: the College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources, which will be growing some of the plants used for supplements; the College of Veterinary Medicine, which will provide animals for experiments; the College of Engineering; the College of Arts and Sciences; and the MU School of Medicine.

Lubahn’s research will examine the "pathways," or chains of communication, between molecules. When one molecule tells another to do something, the message is passed along. Lubahn explained that if one molecule "yells too loudly," the next molecule is upset and yells to the next molecule, with the end result being a disturbance that causes cancer or another disease.

“What we’d like to do is put a wall between (the molecules) or block it or go around it,” Lubahn said.

The process is not that simple in reality. What is more challenging is the hypothesis that scientists need to address two to three pathways at a time to target cancer, which is the latest estimate by the American Association of Cancer Research, according to Lubahn.

Different versions of the same plant can have different potencies and levels of medicinal effectiveness, Lubahn said in a press release, making it beneficial for the center to be able to grow its own plants on site and monitor their characteristics.

"We can grow anything we want, and we can make it do anything we want, practically," Lubahn said. 

Supplementing Columbia

Lubahn said he expects that the annual $1 million from the grant will extend its benefits beyond the university. He predicted economic improvement in the form of new businesses and increased revenue for Columbia.

Lubahn also said $100,000 will be set aside each year for pilot grants that will be awarded to encourage others to conduct research on medicinal plants and botanicals.

These grant-funded projects could place Missouri in very high national standing among plant researchers, he said.

"We could out-compete the east and west coast boys and girls when they’re doing research on plants," he said. "The Harvard and Stanford boys and girls don’t have farms associated with them."

Chancellor Brady Deaton said he hopes the addition of the botanical research center will make MU a "destination university" for prospective students.

"You can learn the most, and you can do it in the most interesting learning environment," Deaton said.

Robert Churchill, dean of the MU School of Medicine, said that over the 160-year history of the medical school, no single year has ever yielded so much grant money.

"This month alone, we've has received $13 million dollars from a combination of National Institutes of Health grants," he said.

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