The search for more and better plant-based medicines continues today.

It’s more than a matter of finding new plants or documenting traditional remedies before they disappear, although that is part of the process.

Researchers are also trying to understand more about the medicinal plants we already use - to identify how each chemical compound affects the human body. Full-scale clinical trials of traditional remedies are just beginning, a process that will give doctors a more complete picture of what a particular herbal remedy can (and can’t) do for a patient. Botanists and growers are also part of this process, as they work on ways to produce plants with a higher or more consistent level of medicinal chemicals.

The search for more and better plant-based medicines continues today.

It’s more than a matter of finding new plants or documenting traditional remedies before they disappear, although that is part of the process.

Researchers are also trying to understand more about the medicinal plants we already use - to identify how each chemical compound affects the human body. Full-scale clinical trials of traditional remedies are just beginning, a process that will give doctors a more complete picture of what a particular herbal remedy can (and can’t) do for a patient.

Botanists and growers are also part of this process, as they work on ways to produce plants with a higher or more consistent level of medicinal chemicals.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

John Balsevich

Group Leader, Plant Natural Products

Plant Biotechnology Institute, National Research Council

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan



Looks for medicinal plants with the potential to become cash crops for prairie farmers.

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


I'm investigating plants that grow well on the Prairies and which we think are amenable to large-scale cultivation. We're looking at these plants from a value-added point of view - specifically, at the phytochemicals, or the chemicals they produce, particularly in the areas that may be applicable to human health. That's where they may provide higher value to farmers and the prairie economy than their usual use in bulk commodity foodstuffs and things like that.
I'm investigating plants that grow well on the Prairies and which we think are amenable to large-scale cultivation. We're looking at these plants from a value-added point of view - specifically, at the phytochemicals, or the chemicals they produce, particularly in the areas that may be applicable to human health. That's where they may provide higher value to farmers and the prairie economy than their usual use in bulk commodity foodstuffs and things like that.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

We’re particularly interested in a member of the carnation family whose common name is cow cockle (Saponaria vaccaria). It’s a minor weed out here in the Prairies, but it’s of interest to us because we’ve obtained a number of different accessions - plants of the same variety - from different places in the world to investigate. Cow cockle produces a number of interesting chemicals, and it’s been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). We began to look at the seed, which cow cockle produces in large quantities, because it contains classes of chemical compounds we think may have some potential in the health area.
We’re particularly interested in a member of the carnation family whose common name is cow cockle (Saponaria vaccaria). It’s a minor weed out here in the Prairies, but it’s of interest to us because we’ve obtained a number of different accessions - plants of the same variety - from different places in the world to investigate. Cow cockle produces a number of interesting chemicals, and it’s been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). We began to look at the seed, which cow cockle produces in large quantities, because it contains classes of chemical compounds we think may have some potential in the health area.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

It has three different classes of chemicals aside from the starches and proteins that the seed normally contains. One group is called saponins, compounds which in the past have been used as soaps. They are very foamy, and some have been shown to have a wide variety of potential health applications. Some have been shown to reduce cholesterol in diet, some have been shown to be anti-fungal, some stimulate the immune system, some are anti-microbial, though that's not a major application. Some very specific saponins have been shown to be antiviral, while some have shown cytotoxic, potential anti-cancer, properties.
It has three different classes of chemicals aside from the starches and proteins that the seed normally contains. One group is called saponins, compounds which in the past have been used as soaps. They are very foamy, and some have been shown to have a wide variety of potential health applications. Some have been shown to reduce cholesterol in diet, some have been shown to be anti-fungal, some stimulate the immune system, some are anti-microbial, though that's not a major application. Some very specific saponins have been shown to be antiviral, while some have shown cytotoxic, potential anti-cancer, properties.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

There has already been some work done in that area and the results have been published. And because cow cockle is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, there has been some work done on some of the constituents, particularly in Japan and China. So we have some background on some of the specific compounds and chemical structures have been established for some of them. Our interest was to take a look at plants that actually grew in the Prairies, obtain some plants that had been grown elsewhere in the world, extract some of these chemicals and see how they differed from each other, see which components had already been identified and which had not. We could then do some fractionation to obtain various compounds with which to do bioassays - that is, test them for various purposes in collaboration with other researchers.

There has already been some work done in that area and the results have been published. And because cow cockle is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, there has been some work done on some of the constituents, particularly in Japan and China. So we have some background on some of the specific compounds and chemical structures have been established for some of them.

Our interest was to take a look at plants that actually grew in the Prairies, obtain some plants that had been grown elsewhere in the world, extract some of these chemicals and see how they differed from each other, see which components had already been identified and which had not. We could then do some fractionation to obtain various compounds with which to do bioassays - that is, test them for various purposes in collaboration with other researchers.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

The extraction technique is fairly typical. We grind up the seed, which normally contains oils and fats. The plant we're working with has only a small percentage of those, about three percent. We generally wash that with a solvent like hexane to remove the oils and leave you with an oil-free seed meal. Generally the compounds we're interested in are soluble in water or alcohol, so we make what we call a tincture: we dissolve it in aqueous ethanol, which leaves behind a lot of the insolubles, the starches and proteins and things like that. We then pull out our phytochemicals. Using this method, about five percent of the cow cockle seed gives us extractable phytochemicals.
The extraction technique is fairly typical. We grind up the seed, which normally contains oils and fats. The plant we're working with has only a small percentage of those, about three percent. We generally wash that with a solvent like hexane to remove the oils and leave you with an oil-free seed meal. Generally the compounds we're interested in are soluble in water or alcohol, so we make what we call a tincture: we dissolve it in aqueous ethanol, which leaves behind a lot of the insolubles, the starches and proteins and things like that. We then pull out our phytochemicals. Using this method, about five percent of the cow cockle seed gives us extractable phytochemicals.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Field of cow cockle.

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


It depends. If you're looking at identifying a new compound and a structure, the more you get, the better. But if you know what you're working with and have an established protocol … there are pretty sophisticated analytical methods you can use to get a workable phytochemical profile from a single seed.
It depends. If you're looking at identifying a new compound and a structure, the more you get, the better. But if you know what you're working with and have an established protocol … there are pretty sophisticated analytical methods you can use to get a workable phytochemical profile from a single seed.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Most of the phytochemicals we are looking at are very complex molecules which would be difficult to prepare synthetically.

For pharmaceuticals in general you need very high purity compounds and you need to go through years and years of testing. We are looking for variants or accessions or types of plants that have a simplified profile that would make it easier to isolate pure compounds. That's one of our goals - to obtain pure, individual components and see whether there's some pharmaceutical potential, or whether we might convert those compounds into a potential pharmaceutical compound.

The compounds that the plants make are very complex, so a lot of them would be very difficult to prepare totally chemically. But remember, we're working with many different genotypes of cow cockle, and the chemicals that they produce can differ in amount and type. The diversity is kind of nice as a screening tool - if you're looking for a potential pharmaceutical or a herbal food additive with health benefits it's a nice starting point, because if you can fractionate and obtain different fractions then maybe you can get a better idea of which ones you want. For example, you mi Read More

Most of the phytochemicals we are looking at are very complex molecules which would be difficult to prepare synthetically.

For pharmaceuticals in general you need very high purity compounds and you need to go through years and years of testing. We are looking for variants or accessions or types of plants that have a simplified profile that would make it easier to isolate pure compounds. That's one of our goals - to obtain pure, individual components and see whether there's some pharmaceutical potential, or whether we might convert those compounds into a potential pharmaceutical compound.

The compounds that the plants make are very complex, so a lot of them would be very difficult to prepare totally chemically. But remember, we're working with many different genotypes of cow cockle, and the chemicals that they produce can differ in amount and type. The diversity is kind of nice as a screening tool - if you're looking for a potential pharmaceutical or a herbal food additive with health benefits it's a nice starting point, because if you can fractionate and obtain different fractions then maybe you can get a better idea of which ones you want. For example, you might find a plant that produces a lot more of certain kinds of active components.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Basically, we're trying to see if cow cockle has potential benefits as a pharmaceutical. That's probably a long-term goal. In the near term we'd like to investigate its potential as a food additive that may reduce cholesterol in the diet or protect you against colon cancer, for example. So this is what we're following up on.
Basically, we're trying to see if cow cockle has potential benefits as a pharmaceutical. That's probably a long-term goal. In the near term we'd like to investigate its potential as a food additive that may reduce cholesterol in the diet or protect you against colon cancer, for example. So this is what we're following up on.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

I'm interested in plants in general and the chemicals they make. Cow cockle is our lead plant now because it's the one that we're growing in fairly significant plots and developing the agronomy for. We have a number of plants with nice chemical profiles, and we've just started to link up with some medicinal researchers to examine some of the potential health benefits. So that's what we'll be going with for the next three years. Beyond that, we're interested in plants related to this that also grow well in the Prairies.
I'm interested in plants in general and the chemicals they make. Cow cockle is our lead plant now because it's the one that we're growing in fairly significant plots and developing the agronomy for. We have a number of plants with nice chemical profiles, and we've just started to link up with some medicinal researchers to examine some of the potential health benefits. So that's what we'll be going with for the next three years. Beyond that, we're interested in plants related to this that also grow well in the Prairies.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

We're not excluding production of industrial chemicals from cow cockle. We have some entrepreneurs who are interested in looking at this plant because it also produces a fine-grained starch that has specialty uses in the paper-sizing business or as a low-fat substitute - small grained starches have similar organoleptic properties as fats, but not the calories. We see these as things that we also want to develop. As well, saponins similar to ours are currently marketed industrially as surfactants and in the food area. They are used as foaming agents in certain soft drinks, for example, and in foods where you need to blend of oil and water, such as salad dressings or chocolate milk. So we're trying to develop those applications as well.
We're not excluding production of industrial chemicals from cow cockle. We have some entrepreneurs who are interested in looking at this plant because it also produces a fine-grained starch that has specialty uses in the paper-sizing business or as a low-fat substitute - small grained starches have similar organoleptic properties as fats, but not the calories. We see these as things that we also want to develop. As well, saponins similar to ours are currently marketed industrially as surfactants and in the food area. They are used as foaming agents in certain soft drinks, for example, and in foods where you need to blend of oil and water, such as salad dressings or chocolate milk. So we're trying to develop those applications as well.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

That is a bit of a stretch. But some dietary saponins have been shown to lead to a reduced incidence of colon cancer in people and it may not be a stretch that some of these things may be added to foods down the road to help reduce the incidence of colon cancer. I don't want to say anything definitive, but that's one promising line. And some of these things bind to cholesterol and stop it from being absorbed very well. But a lot of that depends on the profile that the plant develops. So that's what we're trying to develop - the type of profile that we want to commercialize down the road.
That is a bit of a stretch. But some dietary saponins have been shown to lead to a reduced incidence of colon cancer in people and it may not be a stretch that some of these things may be added to foods down the road to help reduce the incidence of colon cancer. I don't want to say anything definitive, but that's one promising line. And some of these things bind to cholesterol and stop it from being absorbed very well. But a lot of that depends on the profile that the plant develops. So that's what we're trying to develop - the type of profile that we want to commercialize down the road.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

It's an area that I've always loved and had an interest in, so I happen to be in the right place at the right time. It's risky business, but we just hope that something comes through.
It's an area that I've always loved and had an interest in, so I happen to be in the right place at the right time. It's risky business, but we just hope that something comes through.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • explain why clinical research on traditional remedies is important;
  • give in own words how they identify the active medicinal ingredients in a plant.

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