Scientist searches for plants that help human health

From Bhutan’s rugged Himalayas to Ecuador’s cloud forest to Alaska’s frozen tundra, Dr. Mary Ann Lila searches high and low for what could be called pharmaceutical plants — and not the brick-and-mortar kind that make medicines. She seeks the leafy kind, full of chemical compounds that can stave off human disease, promote endurance and strength, improve metabolism and erase signs of aging.

Lila works from the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, where she directs N.C. State University‘s Plants for Human Health Institute. The institute strives to shift the way the American public views and uses plant food crops as sources not just for nutrients but also for phytochemicals that protect and enhance human health.

Lila’s current research involves health-enhancing compounds in blueberries and other berries, phytochemicals that counteract malaria, and the search for natural products with biomedical uses. The latter is part of the Global Institute for BioExploration, or GIBEX, a partnership of NC State and Rutgers universities and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

GIBEX works with scientists, students and traditional healers in developing nations and with Native Americans to identify plants that hold promise for human health. It trains and  equips local scientists with cost-effective drug-discovery tools and technologies that are portable and easy to use. That way, discoveries can be made in the field, with the intellectual property remaining with the local population.

“What we are really doing,” Lila says, “is putting some substance behind what your grandmother always told you.”

– Dee Shore

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