NIH plugs $4.4m into Echinacea/St.John's Wort

By Clarisse Douaud

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: St. john, Inflammation

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have underscored their
support for research into the herbals echinacea and St. John's Wort
through a $4.4m grant.

In 2002, the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements created the Iowa Center for Research on Botanical Dietary Supplements at Iowa State University. NIH has promised to this boost in funding for the next three years The center is dedicated to researching echinacea and St. John's Wort and. The rationale behind this center is that while both herbals - generally marketed for immunity, mental health support and anti-inflammation - are top sellers, little research existed previously existed them. "We are moving toward something like a fingerprint of the biologically active chemicals in the species,"​ said the center's director, Diane Birt. The goal of the center is to improve understanding of the extracts' health supporting properties, so as to improve supplements. ​The current funding will allow the center to continue conducting anti-viral, anti inflammatory and pain receptor studies to assess how St. John's Wort components block inflammation. "In the next three years, we'll include emphasis on bioavailability,"​ said Birt. "We don't know if the chemicals we've identified are absorbed." ​ The researchers have identified some specific compounds in St. John's Wort that provide improved activity when combined than alone. In the case of echinacea, they have been able to isolate components with anti-inflammatory properties. "In studying the nine different species of echinacea, we found some species work better than others,"​ said Birt. "This suggests that it will be possible to get an improved preparation that will enhance the supplement's benefit to human health."​ In both echinacea​ and St. John's Wort, the researchers have found that compounds such as polyphenols contribute to their antiviral properties. "This suggests that we're not going to find a single compound or even a subset of compounds that are responsible for health benefits,"​ said Birt. "A complex chemical profile is contributing to the health effects, so it's more likely that we're moving toward improving these supplements rather than identifying chemicals for use as drugs." ​ In its research on the two herbals, the center is drawing on genomic analysis and metabolic profiling. "One particular strength we have is our ability to control the genetics and growth conditions of the plant material used in our cellular and animal model studies,"​ said Birt. "Being able to characterize known-source germplasm is a very important resource for our center." ​ The center is also set to begin research on Prunella,​ a herbal used to treat ailments such as inflammatory bowel disease, fever, headache and diarrhea.

Related topics: Botanicals

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