A relative of ginger and a mainstay in Indian cuisine, the spice known as turmeric is revered for its medicinal qualities as well as its subtle, bitter flavor. Ayurvedic medicine has used the plant for centuries in the treatment of various ailments from stomach aches to arthritis to broken bones. Here at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine, Dr. Janet Funk, endocrinologist, associate professor and member of the BIO5 Institute, is working to unlock its secrets to treat arthritis, osteoporosis and more.
“Today, when we think of prescription drugs,” she writes, “we don’t usually associate them with mold or, say, tree bark. Yet, more than half of the most common drugs in use today were first discovered and isolated in pure form from ‘natural sources,’ such as plants.”
The examples of such compounds are too long to list, but some of the most famous in the modern apothecary include morphine (which comes from opium poppies), lovastatin (a cholesterol lowering drug isolated from a fungus), penicillin (first derived from a moldy cantalope), and aspirin (a compound originally extracted from the bark of the willow tree).
Plants originally evolved to produce such chemicals as a defense against insects and herbivores. But, says Funk, humans have “learned to turn the tables on plants and use these compounds for our own good, as medicines.”
While it has been used as a traditional remedy for arthritis for thousands of years, no definitive studies have been done on turmeric; that is where Funk’s work comes into focus. With support from the National Institutes of Health, she researched the usefulness of turmeric in treating arthritis.
Funk and her team demonstrated that the chemicals in turmeric were highly effective in blocking the body’s inflammatory response—a helpful bit of medicinal knowledge not only for the treatment of arthritis, but also other complications of inflammation, such as stroke. While these were excellent results, the next trick was to figure out which molecules were doing the real work and creating those desired affects.
“It turns out that turmeric root manufactures two different classes of compounds, producing a lot of molecules in each class,” says Funk. “Molecules from both of these classes had profound anti-arthritic effects—and certain toxicities.”
Funk and her team are now addressing this very problem. “Just because something is found in a natural resource,” she says, “does not mean that it is safe.” Often, when a compound is used to create a desired effect, other unexpected or undesired effects also result. Thus we experience what have been come to be known as “side-effects.”
Today, people all over the world use plant products and extracts as natural supplements. While widely available, they represent something entirely apart from the comprehensively researched, FDA-approved single compounds that your doctor might prescribe.
“Clearly, it is likely that a number of these products hold great promise for preventing and treating diseases,” writes Funk in a recently published article. “Yet still, even when administered in their natural state, there is a need for a scientific evaluation of plant products in order to harvest the bounty of nature, while thwarting the plant kingdom’s many attempts to keep us at bay. Thus, the study of medicinal plants today benefits from a happy marriage between traditional practice and modern technological advances.”
Learn more about the UA's BIO5 Institute at http://www.bio5.org