Medicinal plant gets thorough examination

Monday, July 29, 2002

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Alan Stevens looks at purple prairie coneflowers blooming in Johnson County, Kan., test plots and sees a bridge between farm fields and mainstream medicine.

The flower, also known as echinacea, already is used by consumers as a cold-fighting immune system stimulant.

"There's a certain mystique about the Kansas wildcrafted echinacea that commands a higher price," said Stevens, director for Kansas State University research stations at the Sunflower Ammunition Plant site near De Soto and in Wichita.

But medical science doesn't know much about natural remedies such as echinacea, and although the plants are adapted to Midwest soils and climate, farmers know little about growing them.

Now a Kansas research consortium is replacing herbal medicine's mystique with science, aiming to make safer and more reliable remedies for consumers and a viable alternative crop.

They say it is the only team in the United States mixing botany, agronomy, chemistry and medical practice.

"We're all working together from the field to the chemistry lab and to clinical trials with patients," said Kelly Kindscher, a University of Kansas plant ecologist and author of the book "Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie."

That's unusual and probably unprecedented, said Cydney E. McQueen, a professor with a doctorate in pharmacology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. McQueen, who specializes in natural products, said she was unaware of the Kansas project.

"It's a much-needed area of research," McQueen said. "I'm very glad to hear they're doing it, and it's a very interesting concept of research from fields to patients."

Difficult research subjects

The plants are difficult research subjects because they contain several active chemical compounds, she said. Pharmaceutical companies shy away for that reason and because plant compounds are hard to patent for profit. Some companies are developing patents for dosages of these herbs.

Consumer interest is strong, McQueen said.

But doctors have not embraced herbal remedies because they are not consistent in production, processing, labeling and effectiveness, Stevens said.

"You wonder why you got a cold when taking echinacea one time but you didn't the other time," Stevens said. "It may be the way it was grown. If the way it grows best is developed in Kansas, we've got a head start."

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