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Plant Pharmacy

Can an apple a day keep malaria at bay?

Dr. Mary Ann Lila
Dr. Mary Ann Lila starts every day by eating her favorite superfood: blueberries

Well, maybe not an apple specifically, but other plants?  Definitely.  Dr. Mary Ann Lila studies so-called “pharmaceutical plants” that are full of chemical compounds that can stave off human disease, promote endurance, improve metabolism and erase signs of aging.

Lila, a professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, directs N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis, which strives to shift the way the American public views and uses plant food crops as sources not just for nutrients but also for phytochemicals that protect and enhance human health.  She also founded the Global Institute for BioExploration, or GIBEX, a research and development network  that  works with scientists, students and traditional healers in developing nations to identify plants that hold promise for human health.

“We work a lot with traditional healers or the scientists at the university who still, a lot of times, have a foot in both camps: They are modern scientists; they use advanced technologies such as high performance liquid chromatography, but they still practice some traditional medicine. It’s what they grew up with,” Lila explained.

“But mostly the traditional medicine hasn’t been validated. They don’t have the capacity to validate it. They don’t have the instrumentation. They don’t have the money to do the bioassays we can do here. So what we are really doing is putting some substance behind what your grandmother always told you.”

While Lila spends some of her time in the field looking for plants with such properties, she also conducts complex laboratory research aimed at understanding the precise health benefits of particular phytochemicals and at shedding light on the previously hidden ways that the chemicals build people’s muscles, boost immunity, inhibit cancer, reduce inflammation and more.?

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  1. In Egypt, I work with a number of wild plant species to produce bioactive compounds through in vitro culture. As an example Calotropis and Cynanchum from the Asclepiadaceae to produce cardenolides and flavonoides. There is quite a number of rare and endemic species that would be of interest to study their phytochemical properties and get them in culture. My small lab can do cell culture work but getting into purification and structural elucidation is not feasible at present.
    Best regards.

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