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.

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