NutraIngredients-USA spoke with Dr Paul Mittman, ND and Bill Chioffi of the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences at the Natural Products Expo West trade show this week. The pair said a donation from Rick Scalzo, founder of Gaia Herbs, helped the school transform its operations to become a better partner to industry.
“Rick made a transformational gift to the college in 2019,” said Mittman, who has served as the school’s president for more than two decades.
The gift enabled the school to build a dedicated botanical research facility whose goal is to fully characterize the constituents of medicinal plants.
“He wanted to ensure his vision of herbal medicine continued and that we could do the right kind of science,” Mittman said.
Mittman, Chioffi (who serves as the school's director of strategic partnerships) and Scalzo shared a concern, that being that much of the research on botanicals in the past has been done with poorly characterized materials and an incomplete understanding of how the given botanicals work in the body. This issue is often seen as one of the reasons why some high profile studies on botanical ingredients have shown weak effects or none at all.
Lessons learned with echinacea
Mittman said the school actually started down this path many years before in the form of an NIH grant to look deeply into the bioactive constituents of echinacea, an effort that ran from 2001 to 2006. Echinacea has been a mainstay for consumers seeking to head off minor respiratory infections. While some users swear by the herb, its clinical trial results were uneven.
“We looked at echinacea from seed to bedside,” he said.
Mittman said the effort to find all of the active constituents and fully elucidate their activity led to some surprising discoveries. One of those was one way of preparing echinacea actually encouraged common rhinovirus (the common cold germ) rather than the opposite.
“Echinacea root in water actually made the rhinovirus grow like crazy,” he said.
Mittman said that only by knowing the structures of the main bioactive fractions and understanding where they’re going and what they’re doing in the body can a study be put together that makes sense.
“If you don’t understand the mechanism of action of how a medicinal plant is acting on a cellular level, you can’t study it precisely,” he said.
Building a better extract
It’s also necessary to understand the extraction parameters, as they can affect the performance of an extract, too. Chioffi said the school’s new capabilities represented by the new facility mean that working with the school’s experts companies can catalogue the activities of those bioactives and tweak their extraction processes to bring the ones with the most beneficial attributes to the fore. With new equipment and processes, the work that was done over a period of years with echinacea can now be compressed into a much shorter time frame, making for improved speed to market.
Chioffi said a research effort similar to that done with echinacea was undertaken for Artemisia annua, commonly known as sweet wormwood. This plant’s medicinal potential has been widely known for years, as it was the source of the antimalarial drug artemisin, the discovery of which garnered a share of a Nobel Prize in 2015 for Chinese botanical medicine research Tu YouYou, PhD.
When researching the plant’s antiviral (as opposed to antimicrobial) activity, Chioffi said there are many more constituents of interest, some of which had far greater potential in this aspect than did the artemisin molecule itself.
“We got down to single compounds that were present in only nanogram levels in the parent plant,” Chioffi said. “Artemisin on its own did not have the same viral killing capacity as did a full spectrum extract.”
“It’s an opportunity to advance the field of botanical medicine by being more precise,” he said.
Industry fully on board
Chioffi said the new facility has been welcomed with open arms by companies in the trade.
“We’ve barely opened our doors and we are already almost at full capacity,” he said.
One area of particular interest, Chioffi said, is researching the many different hemp cultivars on the market. This is still almost virgin territory, he said. Cultivars can vary widely and can yield raw material of different bioactive potential depending on growing conditions.
It could be one of the things that has led to the tumult seen in the hemp/CBD markets, with consumers leaving the category after having poor exeperiences with the products. Some of these disaffected end users might have purchased products of low quality, or might have used a product that was produced in good faith but had been made with a raw material that was not fully understood.