Another Life: Business case grows for Irish plants with healing properties

In Trinity College a group of chemists have been funded with €6m for a project titled Unlocking Nature’s Pharmacy from Bogland Species

The wifely hands that dispense my daily round of old man’s pills were once those of a busy pharmacist in a small Connacht town. Early in an eventful life, Ethna pounded and stirred raw ingredients into powders, pastes, ointments, lotions and syrups to offer professional easement to the ills of local people and their livestock.

Her big mortar and pestle, in smooth ceramic, are now a prized sculpture on our kitchen windowsill. Older versions turn up on TV antique shows, along with mahogany doctors’ boxes and the characterful jars and bottles for laudanum, ginger, senna pods, gentian violet, balsam resin and the rest.

The herbal origins of pre-synthetic medicine were still familiar enough in Ireland of the 1950s. And even in more molecular times a whole armoury of “alternative” potions, like the capsuled herbal soothers for my gut and prostate, still partner the benefits of hi-tech pharmacology.

In the late 20th century the drive for new “natural products” in the wake of penicillin and statins was held back by technical problems. But today’s analytical tools and chemical engineering have revitalised the search for the next new cancer drug, anti-viral vaccine or antibiotic. Even outside the labs of “big pharma” they can prompt university scientists to novel and profitable enterprise.

In Trinity College Dublin, a group of chemists in a venture called NatPro have been funded with €6 million for a project titled Unlocking Nature’s Pharmacy from Bogland Species. NatPro was founded by Dr Helen Sheridan, a devoted natural products chemist. She is on the national committee that regulates herbal medicines, and has joined advisers to the Government on the emerging “bio-economy”.

Dr Sheridan, who is based at the school of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in Trinity, leads the Unlocking Nature’s Pharmacy project which aims to locate bog plants with promising chemical ingredients. International collaborators include Young Hae Choi, a South Korean professor from Leiden University in the Netherlands. Among the species studied are bogbean, flowering beautifully pink and white in peatland pools, and bog myrtle, a small, nondescript but sweetly fragrant shrub.

Many plants already have strong rural reputations for healing, as recorded in UCD’s national folklore collection. This was also a valued source for Ireland’s Generous Nature, the pioneering and encyclopaedic 2014 inventory of uses of wild Irish plants by ethnobotanist Peter Wyse Jackson.

Both have typically broad folk reputations in Wyse Jackson’s litany of uses. Leaves of bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata, contain a bitter compound “used widely in medicine as a tonic and to bring down fevers” but also for several ills of livestock, among them the cure of “pine” in Co Mayo’s cattle and sheep.

Bog myrtle, Myrica gale, has also had multiple potencies. There are records of use to treat kidney complaints, measles and sore throats, gravel in horses, red murrain and colic, “and the ashes of burnt leaves were put in the eyes of sheep, with a goose feather, to cure blindness”.

Ethna knew bog myrtle’s domestic use as a fragrant herb for the linen press to keep moths out of blankets. In our beer-making days, drawing on Belgian tradition, we also tried it as a flavouring in place of hops. We were left unimpressed, at least avoiding the “particularly bad hangovers” specified in Wyse Jackson.

Bog myrtle, along with sphagnum mosses, yellow irises and peatland lichens, is in the plant group under study at Trinity by Shipra Nagar, a carbohydrate chemist at the NatPro centre: "My job is to isolate the polysaccharides, characterise their structure and send extracts to be tested for immune-modulatory or anti-inflammatory properties."

Set against the crude context of herbal folk medicine, the work of the NatPro scientists speaks for a singularly energised approach to the discovery of “natural products”. Along with molecules isolated from land plants and seaweeds, the search is for medicinally useful activity in the bacteria of Irish soils and waters.

Commercial ambition

There’s new impact also in the frankly commercial ambition of NatPro. New research that might, in the past, have been motivated for its academic and medical worth, now has profit and success at heart, along with patriotic aspiration.

Sheridan sees a rising tide of natural product industries in Ireland but a limited expertise in the right kind of chemist. She has also experienced the business risks in developing new medical treatments from plant molecule beginnings.

NatPro has a business leader in Dr Gaia Scalabrino as non-academic executive director. She is happy in the eager world of start-ups and SMEs willing to venture into "pharmaceuticals, functional food and cosmetics".

So that’s how Ireland’s generous natural world will be pressed into further human service. Of the island’s 900 or so native plants, Wyse Jackson was impressed to find at least half with traditional medical or edible uses. These were shaped by “a remarkable and sophisticated understanding” of specific values and chemistry, since sadly lapsed into obscurity.

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