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Wikibotanica? AHPA launches online tool to share ID testing information

By Hank Schultz , 29-Oct-2012
Last updated on 29-Oct-2012 at 15:20 GMT2012-10-29T15:20:42Z

Wikibotanica?  AHPA launches online tool to share ID testing information

The wiki approach revolutionized the concept of the encyclopedia. The American Herbal Products Association hopes it will do the same for the science behind herbal products with the unveiling of its AHPA Botanical Authentication Wiki.

The online tool is a centralized source of reference information containing both examples and techniques that have been successfully applied to authenticate selected botanicals.  It’s the first known example of a wiki architecture being used to disseminate this kind of information.

“The idea has been around for a long time. Michael (McGuffin, AHPA’s executive director) has been wanting to take old microscopic images from out of print textbooks and make them publicly available for more than a decade,” Steven Dentali, PhD, AHPA’s chief science officer, told NutraIngredients-USA.

Database includes images, details on techniques

The database currently houses information on more than 120 botanicals. It includes botanical microscopy images, high-performance thin-layer chromatography techniques, organoleptic properties, a discussion of potential adulterants, and also forms an expandable platform that can easily introduce other methods as it develops.

Could the depth of information offered for free inhibit the willing participation of, say, analytical labs  that have the greatest expertise, but also might view their information as proprietary?

“I guess that’s always the question you have when you put out information. If someone’s publishing information on how to do microbial analysis, then you could say that a lab that does microbial analysis is going to lose business,” Dentali said.

But it hasn’t seemed to inhibit contributions so far, Dentali said.  A well-known analytical lab is among the contributors so far.

“It doesn’t always cut that way,” he said. “If you want to put in testing, then yes, it’s going to be an aid to that.  But for a lot of companies, it’s going to show them these tools that they can then go get from the analytical labs.”

“I think having the information available doesn’t always drive people to bring it in-house. You have to have enough volume and expertise,” to make it worthwhile to do all of your own testing, he said.

Oldies but goodies

Dentali noted that one aspect of the wiki format is that it could revitalize interest in techniques for botanical identification that are still scientifically valid but that have fallen into disuse as newer techniques became available.

“There are some overlooked, classic tools that when they are applicable, they are exquisitely useful,” Dentali said.

Microscopy, for instance, can reveal the presence of adulterants under the right conditions.  Depending on the species, a powdered (not extracted) sample can be identified with a microscope and, if you know what you are looking for, adulterants can be spotted, Dentali said.  Seeing a cell type not known to occur in your target botanical species would be a red flag, for example.

“Microscopy wasn’t dropped because as a tool it wasn’t useful for identifying botanicals, it was dropped because, as a country, we forgot botanicals were useful,” Dentali said.  There was a thriving business of herbal medicines in the United States extending even into the 1940s, he said.  Thousands of pharmacists had microscopes and knew how to use them to identify the botanicals they compounded into herbal preparations.  Some of that knowledge is preserved in AHPA’s new tool. Dentali noted, though, that as the site grows, the priority will be to include more and more information on newer techniques such as HPTLC methods.

Site will evolve

The site, being a wiki platform, will grow in depth and breadth as more users contribute to it.  Unlike a classic wiki, the site will be open for editing and contribution only by qualified users.  According to AHPA, an expert advisory panel, professional botanical analysts, and industry-user requests will add to these additional entries through a vetting process.

"The wiki is an evolving tool that can help make professionals more efficient at authenticating herbal ingredient identity and respond to changing industry conditions to provide timely and relevant information, unlike other, relatively static authentication reference resources," said Merle Zimmermann, PhD, AHPA's information analyst, who oversees the project. "As the site continues to grow, it will become increasingly valuable as a part of a well-rounded authentication toolkit.

For  a limited time, the beta version of the site will be available for free;  eventually it will offered for free to AHPA members and for a fee to others.

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