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Understanding Plants in Human Health

Plants are a source of powerful therapeutic drugs. A world leader in finding botanical solutions to human health problems, the Garden has long been involved in the search for plant-based remedies for disease.

In the developing world, three out of four people rely on remedies made directly from plants. Where prescription drugs are the norm, a large percentage of medicines contain at least one plant-derived compound. Yet today only a few hundred wild species supply a large part of the world’s antibiotics, anticancer agents, painkillers, immuno-suppressive compounds, and blood thinners. The medicinal potential of the vast majority of species remains unknown. Garden scientists are helping to change that.

Dr. Michael Balick’s study of Micronesia, a comprehensive survey modeled on his study of Belize, will identify numerous plants with healing properties. One of these, kava, may prove as effective in managing menopausal anxiety and pain as its pharmaceutical counterparts, like Valium - but without the addictive side effects. In another project, Dr. Balick and his colleagues are investigating the use of herbal therapies prescribed by ethnic healers in New York City for women’s health problems.

Dr. Dennis Stevenson is an expert on an endangered group of plants, the cycads. Through the Garden’s molecular systematics program and with colleagues in The Plant Genomics Consortium, he is studying link between the amino acid BMAA, found in both these plants and humans, and a group of neurological disorders that includes Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Introducing BMAA into some plants causes symptoms that resemble the interruption of brain function seen in humans diagnosed with these disorders. Dr. Stevenson’s team hopes to isolate and test the basis of BMAA resistance in cycads, the only plants known both to produce BMAA and be unharmed by it. Their research could lead to treatments that block the degenerative effects of neurological disorders.

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