Photo Courtesy of Manuel Aregullin

Manuel Aregullin, senior research associate, is an expert on plant pharmacology.

March 21, 2017

Roots, Shoots and a Dash of Medicine

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Cornell is a gold mine of fantastic gardens, beautiful foliage and abundant flora. In just the five-minute walk from Mann Library to Rockefeller Hall, one can see trees of all sizes and a wide variety of flowers. With colorful flower blossoms in spring and large full trees in summer, the valley, campus walkways and gardens are scenic masterpieces for much of the year. But there is much more to these shrubs, leaves or grasses than meets the eye.

Cancer, Alzheimer’s and Diabetes are all debilitating diseases. Their treatments routinely involve drugs containing a wide of variety of artificially synthesized chemicals. Is it possible that plants possess chemistry just as powerful as that in synthetically designed drugs? Could the plants we see as decorative be the sources of a new generation of drugs?

Natural remedies have been an important part of human history and extracting medicine from plants is not a new notion. However, investigating the properties of plants that may help provide better, more effective drugs or help us better understand disease biology is not as well established. As of late, the scientific community has fostered a unique interest in plant chemistry with booming trends in plant-based alternative medicines and “all-natural” remedies, either as initial treatment or as last resorts. According to Global Industry Analysts, the global herbal supplements and remedies market is expected to be valued at $115 billion by 2020. With rising health-care awareness among consumers, corporations will take a larger interest in producing products based on herbal and botanical extracts.

The Sun sat down with Senior Research Associate Manuel Aregullin, plant biology, to talk about the growing interest in alternative medicine and his laboratory’s unique focus on plant pharmacology.

“The medicinal use of plants remains a very important component of the healthcare system of many cultures around the globe and students are interested in learning about this topic. Cornell has made an effort in addressing that interest in the past through a diversity of courses in plant biology,” Aregullin said.

The School of Integrated Plant Sciences offers a plants and human health concentration but does not have a dedicated major on the topic. Crop studies on functional foods or foods that provide benefits beyond nutrition, have been conducted at Cornell, but not many have focussed on plant based drugs.

“No one was really working on the pharmacology of a particular plant, whether it was the chemical or biological aspect, for a specific purpose, for a practical motive or looking for something that could result in a new drug lead,” Aregullin said.
A number of courses, such as plant toxicology and pharmacology, that would fulfill the requirements of a major in plant and health sciences do not exist.

“I lecture on botanical pharmacology in the courses I teach, but that is only relevant when you look at plants as medicinals,” Aregullin said. “The major will bring in a formal robust academic foundation to the importance of plants in human health.”
Aregullin and his colleagues expressed their excitement that many students interested in studying plant medicinals intend to attend medical school.

“I think that to have some kind of background to the understanding of plants as medicinals is important in the medical practice for a number of reasons,” Aregullin said. “Some patients use plants as a form of complementary medicine while for others it is an alternative and it is always advantageous for the practitioner to acknowledge the natural origin of a prescription drug in clinical use.”

Often, in medical school training, the number of courses on plant pharmacology are fairly limited and physicians have poor knowledge of what consequences certain alternative medicines may have. This gap needs to be urgently filled if physicians are to know how plant-based drugs react with conventional ones.

“Rarely does botany address the medicinal chemistry of a plant,” Aregullin said. “A large segment of the population is consuming ‘natural’ remedies as supplements and we need to know what is in them and if there is a benefit.”

However, conducting research on plant chemistry and its possible therapeutic benefits is not easy.

“The National Science Foundation will only help fund what they think will be the most effective drug, which will not necessarily come from a plant. Research in clinical areas gets much more funding; there is little funding going towards ventures which are not pivotal to the pharmaceutical industry,” Aregullin said. “It is a little bit complicated.”

However, Aregullin’s research continues. A crucial point of focus is drug discovery based on disease biology and plant chemistry. Aregullin explains that the first step is to establish the hierarchy of the study. The study usually begins with an investigation of either the treatment’s goals or a plant’s chemistry, with subsequent steps intended to find a connection between the two.

If the lab begins by looking at diseases and their treatments, they often begin by looking at developments in the pharmaceutical industry. Clinically validated modes of actions, the process of substance-initiated functional or anatomical changes at the cellular level, are then targeted. Understanding the underlying chemistry behind this mode of action is crucial so that one can identify such chemistry in certain plants.

One criterion by which plants are chosen for study is history. Because of the way certain plants have been used by different groups over the centuries, theories of their benefits have surfaced.

“There is a historical background to most plants, if you give weight to that, chances are that the therapeutic health benefit is real, I concur with the idea that the persistent use of a plant for a specific medicinal purpose could reflect efficacy and safety,” Aregullin said.

A particular group that Aregullin’s lab looks at closely is the Iroquois. The team is investigating the species they use in order to prevent the contribution of starch to higher blood sugar. Northeast American ethnobotany, the study of a region’s plants, is very robust and diverse. Therefore, research does not require traveling vast distances to access plants. In fact, many of the plants used in the lab have been collected from Cornell’s grounds.

When there is a lack of ethnobotanical information, Aregullin looks at particular plant chemistries which have been found to be therapeutic, in a process he calls template chemistry. Once such chemicals have been properly identified, Aregullin can identify new plants that may be used to provide similar benefits. Aregullin is also working on what he calls combinatorial pharmacology, studies in which treatments for two types of diseases are found from similar plant chemistry because of the similarity between these diseases.

With a higher number of ‘natural’ pharmaceuticals expected to hit the market in the coming years, there is a serious need for physicians to understand the chemical basis for these medicines. Furthermore, as pharmaceutical companies see manufacturing costs rise, studies like Aregullin’s could provide the foundation for a new generation of alternative, natural medicines.