Helped by a five-year botanical research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the researchers will study the effects of plant extracts on metabolic syndrome, a collection of risk factors that predispose a person to potentially life-threatening disorders. Common risk factors include obesity, hypertension and high insulin levels.
"We will grow most of the plants and use biochemistry to isolate the bioactive compounds," said Ilya Raskin, professor of plant science at Rutgers. "We will determine which chemical compounds in the plants have therapeutic potential and learn how to best grow them to produce the highest concentrations of the compounds."
A research team led by Dr. William Cefalu will carry out the medical testing and, in the third and fourth years of the study, conduct the human clinical trials.
"Metabolic syndrome represents one of the most important public health problems facing our society as the prevalence is reaching epidemic proportions worldwide," Cefalu said.
The research center is one of five NIH dietary supplement centers, jointly funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Office of Dietary Supplements, focusing on studies of botanical products.
The treatment of metabolic syndrome is a particularly promising area for botanicals because the complex syndrome has many different targets, said the scientists.
Most botanicals derive their effectiveness from a mixture of active molecules, acting in concert. And multiple agents attacking multiple targets simultaneously present decided advantages over conventional drugs which are each based on one compound that produces one action, said Raskin.
"When you have a complex condition like metabolic syndrome in which so many things can go wrong, it will not be possible to deal with all of them with just one single chemical," he added.