Transforming Plants into Modern Medicine

Released: Wednesday, December 14, 2016

These days herbs and supplements come in all colors, shapes and flavors, and it can be nearly impossible to sort through which ones you should choose.

How many times have you walked down the supplements aisle at your local grocery store wondering whether or not you should take a supplement, how much you should take and if it would offer any benefits? We've all been there.

Herbs are an increasing player in the vast amounts of supplements available to us. Do they play a valuable role in our health? It may interest you to know that researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center here in Baton Rouge are analyzing the benefits of many plants and compounds to try and find answers to that very question.

If you look beyond the grey flagship building of Pennington Biomedical's campus on Perkins Road, you'll see another, larger research building behind which houses a lab that may hold the key to unlocking life-changing compounds contained in plants and botanicals.

That lab is home to the Botanicals Research Center, one of only three research centers in the country funded by the National Institutes of Health for this specific type of research. The mission of the BRC is to evaluate botanicals - some from right here in Louisiana - in search of plants that may help prevent or even reverse elements of metabolic dysfunction such as obesity, diabetes and pre-diabetes. The goal, says Pennington Biomedical executive director Dr. William Cefalu, is to lay the foundation for new treatments that are both inexpensive and natural.

"About a third of modern medication has its genesis in plants," said Dr. William Cefalu, executive director of Pennington Biomedical. "For example, the most commonly-prescribed diabetes medication, Metformin, is derived from French lilac, a plant that has been used since the middle ages to treat symptoms of diabetes."

Next door to her lab in the BRC, lab manager Anik Boudreau explains that Russian tarragon, also known as Artemisia dracunculus to insiders, may be helpful in regulating how our bodies metabolize carbohydrates. She and her colleagues discovered that the herb positively affected the metabolism of mice by improving insulin resistance. When given in larger doses to people, Pennington Biomedical researchers found positive trends too.

Bitter melon is another plant with promise for the treatment of diabetes. Studies from Pennington Biomedical and other institutions have shown beneficial effects of the plant on glucose metabolism and body weight in mice. Next on the list for Boudreau are more plants, including native Louisiana plants such as groundsel bush and lizard's tail, which are currently being evaluated in the lab for potential anti-diabetic effects.

Another promising plant-based treatment is Artemisia scoparia, which Pennington Biomedical researchers discovered may have beneficial effects on fat cell function.

"Plants are teaching us about diversity and the importance of incorporating botanicals into our lives," said Boudreau. "There is a great need to find new sources for treatments, and plants are a great place to look."

While these botanicals are in the early stages of testing and may not be readily available to treat metabolic conditions at the moment, Boudreau says you can find health benefits in the produce section of your local grocery store.

"I like to eat a lot of leafy green vegetables and colorful fruits. The more plant foods you can eat the better, because there is good stuff in there that we don't even know about yet. We're working on it!" said Boudreau, who adds that there could be thousands of helpful compounds in one plant alone.

Before deciding to add any botanicals in pill form to your diet, Boudreau suggests speaking with your doctor.

"Your physician can help you determine what is best for you and that conversation is vital to determining whether you add in supplements, even if they are all natural, because ultimately your body doesn't know whether the compound you're taking came from a plant or a lab," said Boudreau.

Future studies will continue to target insulin resistance and diabetes, but researchers may find unexpected benefits along the way that come from the botanicals they study.

"It's early and there is still a lot we don't know," said Boudreau, "but that's why I'm so excited about my job - I am tasked with using plants to discover new ways to help people live healthier lives."

For more information on how you can support this and other projects at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, visit