Oxford ICSB 2024: A botanist, FDA official and lab tech walk into a conference…

By Asia Sherman

- Last updated on GMT

Oxford ICSB 2024: A botanist, FDA official and lab tech walk into a conference…

Related tags botanicals science Regulation Industry

An institution since 2000, this year the Oxford International Conference on the Science of Botanicals (ICSB) gathered over 300 scientists, regulators and industry professionals from across the globe for an immersive program of expert educational sessions and social activity.

The conference, held over four days in April in Oxford, Miss., is supported by a cooperative agreement between the National Center for Natural Products Research (NCNPR) at the University of Mississippi and the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This year’s meeting was held in conjunction with the 7th​ World Congress on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (WOCMAP).

Broadly, sessions explored topics ranging from African herbal wisdom and the impact of climate change on the supply chain to navigating new dietary ingredient notifications and efforts to protect the market and military from tainted products.

For the more science-minded, presentations covered subject matter like one-class modeling for authentication, capsule disintegration and dissolution challenges, plant-to-extract ratios, whole genome skimming, herb-drug interactions, toxicological data, reverse pharmacokinetics and cell-based assays.

One message that emerged was the importance of inter-industry and institutional connection to ensure that knowledge and process are not transmuted or lost to an ever-expanding market.

FDA is here to help

From the outset of the conference, there was a clear message that FDA is here to help industry protect public health, acting not as an enemy but as a referee to make sure that the rules are followed by the regulated entities.

Dr. Cara Welch, director of CFSAN’s Office of Dietary Supplement Programs, did not stray too far from the Agency’s talking points in her keynote, but there was a sense that there were messages that bore repeating.  

These included communicating the FDA’s mission to support science-based advancement within the framework of the law and the importance of early and often communication between companies and the Agency. Messages were reinforced in subsequent presentations by FDA officials on the processes established and guidance available for investigational new drug applications, new dietary ingredient notifications and clinical trials. 

“Having access to good science and broad knowledge allows our determinations that sometimes need to happen on a firm-by-firm or even product-by-product basis to be defensible,” Dr. Welch said. 

She highlighted the importance of the expertise of FDA Centers of Excellence such as NCNPR for the continued generation and exchange of value-added technical and scientific information to advance method and regulation in a growing and evolving industry.

Herbs and the market

The dietary supplement industry has spurred 1,000% market growth in the last 30 years and is expected to expand to nearly $70 billion in 2024, according to Bill Giebler, director of content and insights at the Nutrition Business Journa​l, who provided an overview of the what, where and why of the dietary supplement industry.

According to NBJ data, the marketplace is divided into vitamins (28.6%), specialty or other like CoQ10, omegas and probiotics (20.1%), herbs and botanicals (19.7%), sports nutrition (15.5%), meal supplements (10.5%) and minerals (6%).

“If you ask me how fast the industry grows, I would be pretty safe saying about 6% a year—that's kind of where we hover around as an industry,” Giebler added, noting the large pandemic spike and the market correction in 2022. 

He said that the herbs and botanicals segment is both strong in terms of growth and dollar sales, historically “doing the same thing that the industry is doing but doing it a little bit better” and currently growing at 4.4%. 

Some top drivers: combination herbs, ashwagandha, echinacea, elderberry, ginger, aloe, gingko biloba, maca, fenugreek, horny goat weed and ginseng.

Giebler also discussed delivery formats (no longer a pill market, gummies may be tapering off, powders are strong, and liquids are emerging); sales channels (mass market and e-commerce soon to overtake specialty and natural retail, with growth noted in the health practitioner channel); and the conditions consumers are managing beyond general vitality (sports/energy/weight management, cold/flu/immunity, gastrointestinal health, heart health, mental health/mood and stress, to name a few).

Tradition and evolution

During his opening remarks, Loren Israelsen, founder and president of the United Natural Products Alliance, took attendees back to the beginnings of the modern dietary supplement industry in the decade following the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994. 

“When the statute passed, there were maybe 30 people in the world that actually knew what DSHEA said,” Israelsen said. “And everyone else was fighting so hard for it, [but] nobody understood it then, and in my opinion, they don't understand it now.”

At the time there were some 600 manufacturers and 4,000 products, and industry gathered at more intimate events (much like ICSB but at swanky hotels since often sponsored by pharma) to discuss topics such as its new regulatory framework, scientific methods for product integrity, ephedra, modern uses of herbal medicines, drug-herb interactions, the role of botanicals in women’s health and implications in military nutrition.

While many of these topics remain current (and appeared on the 2024 ICSB agenda), Israelsen noted that the industry and the market have changed, particularly with respect to how information is communicated. 

Botanical illustrations on conference programs have given way to glossy, and the transmission of knowledge is not what it once was. Health-related information previously relayed by shamans, wise women, scientists, practitioners and herbalists is now broadcast by TikTok and Instagram influencers peddling supplements from behind their kitchen counters for kickbacks and likes.

He called attention to the 'E' in DSHEA, noting that industry has focused so much on its growth, that it has overlooked a fundamental component of the 1994 law, which is to educate the consumer (and through appropriate channels like HerbalGram​).

“It really boils down to who are the trusted authoritative sources going forward […] and listening to people who really can provide thoughtful feedback,” Israelsen said. “So, let us choose our teachers carefully and well, and let us be among those that support high quality educational information.”

Extracurricular and off-program activities

Throughout the program, the special brand of convivial convergence of industry, regulation and science was cultured by the deadpan humor and the science beyond reproach of host Dr. Ikhlas Khan, director of the NCNPR since 2017 and formerly assistant director since 2002.

Although the heart of the gathering was the breadth and excellence of the conference content, its soul was undoubtedly the extracurricular and off-program activities, which might include a visit to the Maynard W. Quimby Medicinal Plant Garden, browsing Square Books, live music and dancing, a gin distillery tour, yard games, bowling, hobnobbing at the popular City Grocery, Glenfarclas by William Faulkner’s grave or a group stroll to Waffle House.

The next Oxford ICSB is scheduled for April 7 to 10, 2025 in conjunction with the 24th International Congress of the International Society for Ethnopharmacology.

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