Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
January 23, 2004
Prof receives $1-million grant to improve medicinal plant production
Consumers of natural health products soon will have some assurance that what they are digesting is safe and effective, due in part to new research by a University of Guelph professor.
Praveen Saxena, from the Department of Plant Agriculture, has received $1 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to develop methods to improve the production of medicinal plants.
Saxena and collaborator Prof. Mike Dixon, director of U of G’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF) and chair of the Department of Environmental Biology, will use the grant to perfect techniques for the mass propagation of plantlets in tightly controlled conditions and the production of natural health products.
The research can help Ontario’s horticulture industry develop consistent and environmentally clean sources of medicinal plants – something now ordered by law. New federal regulations introduced this month require producers of natural health products to provide clinical evidence for health claims, including ensuring that the products contain clean compounds. The requirements, which Health Canada is phasing in over several years, affect vitamins and minerals, herbal remedies, homeopathic medicines and other products.
Saxena is developing protocols for growing hundreds of thousands of plants from tiny bits of tissue, cleanly and consistently. “The plant is often the most-neglected part of plant-based medicines,” he said. He hopes that this research will lead to an entirely new type of horticultural industry in Ontario and access to a huge export market of high-quality medicinal plants used in herbal products.
He’s been working with a number of species: St. John’s wort, used to treat depression and anxiety; feverfew, used for headaches, rheumatism and arthritis; and echinacea, which is taken to boost the immune system. Saxena is especially intrigued by high levels of melatonin and serotonin in St. John’s wort and feverfew that might help confer medicinal benefits.
Beginning with a piece of tissue only one centimetre long and as thick as a human hair, Saxena mass-produces plants in “bioreactors” or specially designed flasks. He nurtures the seedlings in growth chambers in his plant cell technology lab and in the CESRF. He is collaborating with Science-Based Medicinal Plants, Inc. in Flamborough, an offshoot of Harster Greenhouses Inc. to develop technologies for growing the medicinal plants safely and efficiently in large quantities.
“The idea is to grow plants in a controlled environment to eliminate all the contamination and maintain optimum quantities of medicinal components,” Saxena said.
Besides refining development methods and tools, Saxena is interested in helping discover new plants with medicinal properties against diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. He also plans to study the structural chemistry of natural products from medicinal plants such as echinacea.
In addition, Saxena is exploring the cultural and spiritual aspect of plant remedies, including traditional knowledge of medicinal plants beginning with his ancestral India. “Medicinal plants have been part of philosophy and religion in almost all cultures,” he said.