Native plant extracts could hold key to health treatments

Native plant extracts could hold key to health treatments

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - Since prehistoric times, plants and their extracts have been used for their healing properties. In the plant rich state of Louisiana, there are hundreds of native plants that could hold the key to unlocking life-saving medication, but they have not been researched until now. 7 News goes inside the McNeese State University natural plants lab to see the work being done.

We can thank ancient Egyptians for the discovery of aspirin.  It comes from willow bark, something chewed by Egyptians thousands of years ago for pain relief.  "Humans have used plants as a source of remedies, dating back to the ancient Chinese and closer to home, American Indians here in Louisiana," said Omar Christian, Ph.D., assistant chemistry professor at MSU.

Dr. Christian says we can add daffodils to the list of treatments for Alzheimer's patients, foxgloves for irregular heartbeat and bark from the yew tree for the cancer drug, "Taxol."  In fact, 75 percent of all drugs we take today comes from plant extracts.  "Usually the extracts are a dark, dark green or red, depending on the plant," said Dr. Christian.

You might expect Dr. Christian's work in the natural plants lab to involve lots of leaves, grasses and berries.  But his focus, along with students like Tara Cudd, is on their extracts.  "We've found that sometimes this is a good lead in to finding actually druggable molecules," he said.

Dr. Christian and his students are zoning in on native Louisiana prairie plants.  "Nobody has taken the time to look," he said, "and we could potentially be sitting on a gold mine."

Let's start with rattlesnake master.  "We started by basically just extracting the plant and seeing if it had any effects at all just putting the extract in the vicinity of mosquitoes," said Dr. Christian.

When mosquitoes came in contact with the flowers and extracts of this plant, they died on contact - raising the question of whether or not this could be used to help control the mosquito population.  "We were surprised at how fast the mosquitoes died," said Dr. Christian, "it was pretty quick."

Graduate student, Tara Cudd, is very interested in seeing if the rattlesnake master could be used as an anti-mosquitocidal agent.  "What we're working on is trying to determine what is in it that is causing the mosquito death," she said.

The next plant is a local favorite: mayhaws.  "We are taking a look at our local mayhaw fruits to see if they can reduce hypertension in people who consume them," said Dr. Christian.

The bright red color of mayhaw berries suggests the fruits may harbor anthocyanins, crucial in preventing inflammation and cell damage.  "That would obviously have some impact on our consumption of mayhaws, our growth and economic development of the region in terms of mayhaw farmers," said Dr. Christian.

Mild to moderate depression is oftentimes treated with an herbal remedy: St. John's wort. Coastal Louisiana has two varieties of this plant, unresearched until now.  "Hypericum brachyphyllum, which is coastal plains St. John's wort, native to this area, has no work done on it," said Dr. Christian.

Perhaps the most important potential discovery by Dr. Christian and his students is finding new cancer-fighting agents.  "Our next question is to ask if these plants have any potential in killing cancer cells," he said.

Cultured human cancer cells are being tested against the extracts, holding the hope of a possible cure in our own backyard.

The National Cancer Institute sends researchers into areas of high biodiversity to collect plants and screen them against cancer targets, just as the MSU researchers are doing.

The local team is also looking into hibiscus, known to be an antioxidant.

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