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Mainstream science validates healing properties of plants

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: science, plants, medicine

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(NaturalNews) Are plant-based therapies, including potential natural cures for cancer, mostly pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking promoted by "health nuts" and old hippies? Not at all -- and the evidence for the validity of the healing power of plants is coming from none other than mainstream science.

In fact, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has finally accepted the reality and importance of the therapeutic properties in plants and funded a $6 million initiative for an international team of scientists to study how plants produce a rich diversity of chemical compounds, many of which are medicinally important. The results of that research so far, which includes the genetic blueprint of medicinal plants and what beneficial properties are encoded by the genes that have been identified, are now being officially released for the first time to the public.

"Most people are familiar with the natural products we derive from plants," Joe Chappell, professor of plant biochemistry at the University of Kentucky, said in a statement to the media. "These include the delightful fragrances that go into perfumes, soaps, household cleaning products and more. Just as the sensory properties of plants interact with and trigger your sense of smell, the natural compounds of plants can target and cause a reaction within your body."

The compilation of information about the natural potentially healing compounds of plants was developed by the Medicinal Plant Consortium (MPC), headed by Dr. Chappell who worked with Dean DellaPenna, professor of biochemistry at Michigan State University, and Sarah O'Connor, professor of chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England. The MPC project also included participants from Michigan State, Iowa State University, the University of Mississippi, Purdue University, Texas A&M University, MIT, and the John Innes Centre in the UK.

Finding out exactly what medicinal plants contain

This research team brought to the project a broad spectrum of expertise from plant biology, systematics, analytical chemistry, genetics, molecular biology, and drug development from natural products. During their two-year project, the scientists collected data to help them understand just how plants make chemicals, a process called biosynthesis.

To this end, the researchers investigated the genes and chemical profiles of 14 plants known to contain compounds with biological activity which are associated with medicinal properties. For example, the foxglove plant is used to make the cardiac muscle stimulant digoxin, and the periwinkle plant is a source for the widely used chemotherapy drugs vincristine and vinblastine. In a press statement, the researchers noted that these and many other medicinal plants, including ginseng, are often found in household gardens and flower boxes. They could be vast cornucopias of compounds ripe for discovering and developing into widespread therapeutic applications.

"The current understanding of molecules and genes involved in the formation of beneficial compounds is very incomplete," said Dr. O'Connor, who is also a lecturer in chemical sciences at University of East Anglia. "However, the ability to conduct genome-wide studies of model plant species has resulted in an explosive increase in our knowledge of and capacity to understand how genes control biological processes and chemical composition."

So does this mean the scientists are advocating using medicinal plants to treat diseases? Not exactly. They appear to be primarily interested in helping Big Pharma translate the information they've come up with into more money-making drugs. "Our major goal in this project has been to capture the genetic blueprints of medicinal plants for the advancement of drug discovery and development," said Dr. Chappell, project coordinator for the MPC, adding that the research gives medicinal plants "tremendous pharmaceutical potential."

However, with the information the scientists have discovered now being placed in the public domain, it may well be a rich resource not just for Big Pharma but for physicians and other scientists seeking natural plant-based therapies for diseases.

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