Probing Plants and Microorganisms That Save Lives

October 18, 2012

While most of us focus on the aesthetics of plants – the beauty of flowers, for example –Dr. Leslie Gunatilaka concentrates on something more microscopic.

What he learns is laying the foundation for the development of new therapies to fight cancer and neurological diseases, as well as the strengthening of agriculture in Arizona.

In his long career in natural products science, he’s published more than 200 papers, including investigations into Withania somnifera, known as ashwagandha or Indian ginseng, and a Christmas cactus-associated fungus, Paraphaeosphaeria quadriseptata, for their potential cancer-fighting properties.

Gunatilaka, director of the UA’s Natural Products Center, is a dedicated researcher. “I have spent at least 20 years working at the bench,” he says. “This has given me the opportunity to learn a variety of techniques and instrumentation used in natural products research.”

Workings of Plant and Microbial Chemistry

His work and the research programs he establishes get to the heart of plant and microbial chemistry. He looks into biological activities and constituent compounds of plants and their associated microorganisms to determine what might be useful in medicine or agriculture.

He seeks ways to efficiently produce natural products that are in limited supply so that enough is available for further study and clinical development.

Innovative production methods can boost the strength of natural products. Gunatilaka has had much success with aeroponic production of withaferin A, a constituent ofWithania somnifera. It provides promising activity against brain cancer and neurological disorders.

Innovation Requires Collaboration

Gunatilaka’s work trains future agricultural, chemical and pharmaceutical scientists. Students in his lab benefit from his expertise in isolation, structure elucidation, biological evaluation, synthesis and medicinal chemistry of useful natural products.

Gunatilaka is affiliated with the UA’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment,BIO5 InstituteInstitute of the Environment and Arizona Cancer Center. But he believes that he can’t work solely within the UA community.

“I work diligently to establish links with scientists from academia and industry working in areas related to natural products discovery and development in a mutually beneficial manner,” he says.

“I believe such collaboration would lead to more useful results with possible immediate applications.”

He’s initiated collaborative projects with Whitehead Institute, University of Michigan, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, Translational Genomics Institute, Josephine Ford Cancer Center, University of Toronto, Nuvogen Research LLC, GenSpera Inc. and ImStar Therapeutics. He additionally works with other experts from Brazil, China and Sri Lanka.

“Such collaboration has provided access to hitherto uninvestigated plants and microorganisms,” he says.

Ganatilaka’s success earned him recognition as a UA leading-edge researcher. He and four other faculty were honored at the spring 2012 Innovation Day, organized annually by the Office of University Research Parks and the Arizona Center for Innovation.