The Medicinal Plants/Human Health Consortium includes plant scientists and bioinformatics specialists who are mapping the genetic makeup of 45 different plant species, many already used for their potent medicinals. The mapping project was made possible by recent revolutionary advances in probing the blueprints of various medicinal plants so that key genetic information can be rapidly accessed.
The online databases — the second is housed at Michigan State University — are funded by the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences through the American Recovery and Re-investment Act (ARRA). The three-year projects were funded as part of a $10 million initiative from the National Institutes of Health.
“This work offers a valuable data resource for understanding the genes, enzymes and complex processes responsible for the biosynthesis of important plant-derived drugs,” says Warren Jones, chief of biochemistry at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the project’s coordinator. “The collaborative effort should greatly contribute to our ability to understand and exploit the rich biochemistry found in plants.”
Along with UIC, the consortium includes scientists from the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, the National Center for Genomics Resources in Santa Fe, N.M., and Washington State University. The consortium is led by Norman Lewis of Washington State.
As a member of the consortium, UIC plays a key role in the identification and documentation of the plants being studied, both in living form at the UIC Pharmacognosy Field Station in Downers Grove, Ill., as well as in the form of dried specimens curated at the John G. Searle Herbarium of the Field Museum, said Doel Soejarto, professor of pharmacognosy and project coordinator at UIC.
Researchers, led by Soejarto, also study flora at the Dorothy Bradley Atkins Medicinal Plant Garden at UIC, which contains 150 species of medicinal plants, many of which are producers of mainstay drugs used in clinical practice worldwide.
Plants have been a traditional source of medicine throughout history, Soejarto said. For example, snakeroot has been used in India to treat a variety of ailments for at least 3,000 years. While still used around the world in traditional medicines, plants are also the basis for some of the most potent modern medicines.
Taxol, for example, is one of the most prevalent and powerful anti-cancer treatments; it is derived from the yew tree. Other plants in the two databases include ginseng, foxglove, opium poppy, periwinkle and may apple. The 45 species represent plant-derived medicines currently used to treat cancer, infection, Alzheimer’s disease, inborn errors of metabolism, hypertension and inflammation.
Researchers in the two consortia represent a broad spectrum of expertise, from plant biology and systematics, to analytical and natural-products chemistry, to genetics and molecular biology, as well as drug development.
Sam Hostettler, (312) 355-2522