Food as Medicine: A Promising Pharmaceutical in New England’s Pantry

Aug 22, 2013

Humans have been raiding nature’s drug store for millennia, coaxing everything from painkillers to beauty treatments from plants. But scientists believe there’s much more to discover. And those discoveries might be waiting closer to home than you think. Now, a University of Rhode Island researcher has found some promising properties in one of New Englanders’ favorite foods.

University of Rhode Island pharmacy professor Navindra Seeram meets me in the courtyard of his department’s sharp new building. He’s giving me a tour of a carefully manicured garden they’ve recently planted.

URI pharmacy professor and researcher Navindra Seeram tours the new medicinal garden.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

“Well, this is the new Heber Youngkin medicinal garden at the University of Rhode Island. As you can see we are flanked by the Tyler Hall, Woodward Hall, and the new College of Pharmacy.”

Seeram explains how this garden—with its rows of scientifically labeled flowers and shrubs and trees--will teach pharmacy students how to find leads on new drugs, as well as how to treat patients with some of the world’s oldest remedies.

“This is the original pharmacy. This is where it all started. It’s called pharmacognosy, which is the study of drugs from nature.”

“Pharma…cog?" I stumble.

“Phar-ma-cog-nosy," Seeram repeats.

The word may be unfamiliar, but the plants we’re about to encounter here aren’t. As we walk past rows of raised beds, Seeram points out a few examples.

The URI pharmacy school's new medicinal garden is carefully tended and labeled.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

“So for example as it says here, marigold can be used as an ointment to heal minor burns.”

“Over here, it’s valerian. Valerian is an interesting plant. It’s been widely used for sleeping.”

“Over there is the Madagascar periwinkle, a very interesting plant. From that plant two anti-cancer drugs were isolated.”

“Look there, behind it is the sugarcane.”

Seeram says it turns out that a lot of the foods we grew up eating, or that our ancestors ate for hundreds or thousands of years, may actually be better for us than we thought.

“I’m from the Caribbean, so sugarcane is the primary source of sucrose for us. But sugarcane has been well-investigated. And recently the waxes from the sugarcane have been developed into a natural product called policosanol. And policosanol has been shown to reduce cholesterol and be good for heart health.”

“A lot of plants, of course, are well studied,” I mention. “Their medicinal properties have been known about for thousands of years in some cases. Do you have any sense of the percentage of the world’s plants we haven’t studied, the untapped potential?”

“Of course. It’s actually well known,” says Seeram. “There are over 300,000 higher order plants. Species. Of those, people have studied only 10%, maximum. So there’s large biodiversity in terms of large number of plants that are still waiting to be investigated. You know, parts of the Amazon, even here in New England.”

That’s right, New England. And to the delight of pancake lovers everywhere, one of the region’s most iconic products is no longer waiting to be investigated.

“Our work has shown that beyond sucrose, maple syrup contains a large number of really healthy plant antioxidants that we’ve started to isolate and identify.

Flax growing in the medicinal garden
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Antioxidants may play a role in fighting cell-damaging diseases like cancer, although the jury is still out on how effective they are. But that’s not stopping Seeram and his team. They received funding from the Federated Maple Producers of Quebec, who would understandably be delighted for scientists to discover some previously unknown health benefits in this northern nectar. But why stop at syrup? Seeram says they’re examining the whole tree.

“So we have started to look at isolating compounds from maple bark and maple leaves and maple roots, maple flowers. And part of our work that we’re looking at is, are there new compounds here? And could some of these compounds be drug leads? Imagine discovering the next Taxol, which I said is an anti-cancer drug from the bark of the pacific yew.”

Seeram leads us inside the school of pharmacy and up to his lab, where PhD student Hang Ma is tending a couple of flasks of clear liquid he’s sucked from maple leaves. A tube snakes from those flasks into a machine called a mass spectrometer, which is busy sniffing out the individual molecules in that liquid and displaying their unique signatures on Hang’s computer screen.

“So we use this instrument to isolate the bioactive compounds in the leaves.”

“The fall leaves are sitting on the ground. No one ever looks at them. But we decided it’s a sustainable source of many natural products. So Hang’s project as part of his PhD research, is collecting those red leaves and extracting them to see if he could isolate some of those useful compounds.”

Ph.D student Hang Ma mans the mass spectrometer in Navindra Seeram's plant and pharmaceutical lab at URI.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

So far, Seeram says there’s some intriguing data, but it’s a long road from the lab bench to the pharmacy shelf. Once you identify a potentially beneficial compound in maple syrup or a maple leaf, for example, you have to test it. But it’s not like testing a drug you produced from chemicals, in a lab, where you can control the recipe.

“It’s just very complicated to design large human clinical studies with natural products when they’re not one pure compound, they’re usually a mixture of compounds, and therefore they’re very variable. And we don’t understand how to standardize them. And how do you design studies when things are so inherently different?”

Well, says Seeram, you do your best. And if those studies happen to involve pancakes, even better.

URI professor Navindra Seeram's delicious looking personal collection of maple syrups.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR