Research to focus on plant medicine

A grant will help MU scientists study how plants can help fight disease.
Wednesday, November 26, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:25 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Before American doctors ever developed Tylenol or radiation, alternative medicines, like those from plant extracts, were used by cultures across the globe to treat diseases ranging from the flu to cancer.

With 29 percent of Americans and more than 80 percent of the African population using alternative medicines, plant extracts might offer real medical benefits. Now a $275,400 grant will help MU researchers study the effects of these plants on AIDS and cancer and discover ways to combine indigenous medicines with more conventional drugs.

In southern Africa, more than 3,000 species of plants are used as medicines. William Folk, an MU professor of biochemistry and associate director of the Center for Phytonutrient and Phytochemical Studies, and his team intend to use the Planning Grant for International Centers for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine to study the validity of these plants as a new opportunity for treating illnesses globally.

“We’ll test scientifically if any value is found in their traditional medical practices,” Folk said. “Then we can try to incorporate them into conventional practices.”

Folk and his colleagues at MU obtained the grant by focusing their research on the potential benefits of three African plants. Two plants are used to treat AIDS patients, and the other plant is given to men suffering from prostate cancer. Folk’s team will test the medical validity of these plants in their laboratories and in animal experiments.

Funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the two-year grant will go toward the establishment of the International Center for Indigenous Phytotherapy Studies. The goal of the center, to be based at MU and South Africa, is to establish a global and cross-cultural exchange to research medicines that come from indigenous systems like acupuncture, Chinese herbal therapies and African plant extracts.

MU researchers had a platform to study the global use of phytotherapy from their 17-year collaboration with the University of Western Cape in South Africa. Folk’s team also works with the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, which provides a plentiful sample of African flora and is active in plant conservation.

“(The Botanical Garden is) trying to protect and preserve plants,” Folk said. “If they are valuable, there’s a risk that they may be overused, and on the route to extinction.”

An exchange program will also be part of the grant, with two MU research faculty members, John Cannon and Leszek Vincent, studying in South Africa, and three students from UWC coming here to work and study.

Nine other universities will receive similar grants — John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Harvard University Medical School in Boston, University of California, San Francisco, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash., Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, University of Maryland in Baltimore, University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and University of Washington in Seattle.

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