Herbal Cures Put to Test at Kansas Echinacea Farms

Bill Graham
Sunday Gazette-Mail (Charleston, W.Va.)
July 29, 2002
Alan Stevens looks at purple prairie coneflowers blooming in Johnson
County test plots and sees a bridge between farm fields and
mainstream medicine.

The flower, also known as echinacea, already is used by consumers as a cold-fighting immune system stimulant.

"There's a certain mystique about the Kansas wild-crafted echinacea that commands a higher price," said Stevens, director for Kansas State University research stations at the Sunflower Ammunition Plant site near De Soto and in Wichita.

But medical science doesn't know much about natural remedies such as echinacea, and although the plants are adapted to Midwest soils and climate, farmers know little about growing them.

Now, a Kansas research consortium is replacing herbal medicine's mystique with science, aiming to make safer and more reliable remedies for consumers and a viable alternative crop. In its studies, the team mixes botany, agronomy, medicinal chemistry, and medical practice.

"We're all working together from the field to the chemistry lab and to clinical trials with patients," said Kelly Kindscher, a University of Kansas plant ecologist and author of the book Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie.

That's unusual and perhaps unprecedented, said Cydney E. McQueen, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who has a doctorate in pharmacology. McQueen, who specializes in natural products, said she was unaware of the Kansas project.

"It's a much-needed area of research," McQueen said. "I think experts would agree, if we're going to test these products scientifically and make use of them, we have got to use more of the basic research."

Inconsistencies in Form, Effectiveness

The plants are difficult research subjects because they contain several active chemical compounds, McQueen said. Pharmaceutical companies shy away for that reason and because plant compounds are hard to patent for profit. Some companies are developing patents for dosages of these herbs.

Consumer interest is strong, McQueen said. But many doctors have not embraced herbal remedies because they are not consistent in production, processing, labeling, and effectiveness, Stevens said.

Folklore has guided the market.

"You wonder why you got a cold when taking echinacea one time but you didn't the other time," Stevens said. "It may be the way it was grown. If the way it grows best is developed in Kansas, we've got a head start and can get side businesses like processing plants."

Kindscher documented more than 220 medicinal prairie plants in his book, and he said probably as many useful woodland plants exist.

Consortium agronomists are growing plants such as ginseng, a reputed circulation booster, in wooded areas. Wild elderberry is being grown to test its fruit that has antioxidants. Several grassland plants are being grown, such as the anti-depressant St. John's wort and red clover, which is believed to smooth hormone changes.

"But no one has ever looked at what part of the plant is most important," said Jeanne Drisko, a doctor at Kansas University School of Medicine, who specializes in alternative treatments.

Echinacea is the poster plant for the fledgling project because it is widely used by consumers and Kansas is the world's top source, Kindscher said. Missouri has banned gathering the plant on public lands and the rights of way of roads because demand led to damage of native prairie stands.

Mixed Results

Past research differs on whether echinacea is effective, Drisko said. But the research has not been consistent. What's labeled as echinacea on the store shelf can come from a variety of coneflower species, various plant parts, and different processing methods.

"What you can buy in the bottle is not uniform," said Ted Carey, a Kansas State University professor working on how farmers can best grow the plants.

In fact, research is just now isolating the active medicinal compounds in echinacea, Drisko said.

Herbal lore experts differ on whether the coneflower's roots, leaves, or flowers are most important for a medicine, she said, or whether all three should be used. Folklore said that if a root sample made your tongue tingle, that plant held potent medicine. But a Kansas University medicinal chemist has determined that the tongue-tingling compound actually suppresses the immune system and the useful chemical is something else, Drisko said. She plans to develop clinical studies for the herb.

But first, Kansas State research agronomists are cultivating various coneflower species at several sites. Different growing methods and soils are being used. A farmer usually wants his crops to have plenty of water and fertility with no competition from weeds, Stevens said.

With medicinal plants, however, some experts think that stresses create the useful compounds. So a weather station is recording climate data to be coordinated with information on plant growth.

So far the project has spent $3,000 for seed, and the researchers work on it in their spare time. They are hoping for large grants to tackle broad questions.

American Indian healers may have picked herbs from very specific sites at a precise time so they would be effective, Stevens said. Perhaps science can discover the same and more.

"This has the potential to drastically change medical services," he said. "But first the clinical results have to be made consistent and reliable."

Copyright 2002 Sunday Gazette-Mail

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