Yanrong Qian and Lingying Tong

Yanrong Qian, a post-doctoral researcher, and assistant investigator Lingying Tong separate botanical extracts into their chemical constituents. The extracts, as varied as maple and pomegranate, arrive in vials, but are then further disassembled in hope of learning which compounds have special properties.

Starting with organic materials such as pomegranates and maple tree leaves, a team of distinguished researchers at the Edison Biotechnology Institute at Ohio University are exploring how compounds in natural products could solve age-old human health problems.

The researchers are also in the process of getting federal approval to conduct research on cannabis, so that work is not happening yet. The project is funded with a $1.85 million, five-year grant from Black Elk Biotechnology, which has a parent company that is seeking to build a medical marijuana-growing facility in The Plains (see our article on that effort here).

The principal investigators for EBI on this project represent a range of disciplines at OU. The lead investigator is John Kopchick. The Goll-Ohio Eminent Scholar at OU, he’s a distinguished professor of molecular biology whose research led to the development of the prescription drug Somavert. The university has received more than $88 million to date in royalty income for development of that drug.

Kopchick is joined by co-principal investigators Shiyong Wu, director of EBI and a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and professor Dhiraj Vattem, director of the School of Applied Health Sciences and Wellness. Between the professors, Wu noted, they have a broad range of research expertise in dietary compounds, nutrition, cancer, diabetes, inflammation, neurodegenerative and other disorders.

The Black Elk grant-funded research on natural products is just one part of what the researchers hope will become a broader research platform at EBI into natural products. The Black Elk grant specifically is meant to identify and evaluate the “therapeutic efficacy” of natural products for cancer, neuronal disease and inflammatory disease.

Kopchick said that the research could involve exploration of a number of different natural products. He and the other two investigators on the Black Elk project said they’d like to explore compounds in maple leaves and pomegranates specifically, but noted that a number of other products could be explored, including Ohio’s native fruit, the pawpaw. The investigators said that once they get federal approval, the cannabis research will mirror the other research they’re doing into natural products, meaning they will explore the efficacy of cannabis extracts on a range of disorders and diseases.

Wu cited the potential for a number of different products to come out of EBI’s natural products research, from pharmaceutical drugs to dietary products to cosmetics (to protect human skin from skin cancer inflammation damage, for example).

There’s also potential for this research to attract companies to this area to help grow some of the natural products, Vattem said.

“Southeastern Ohio, especially geographically speaking, is ideally suited for cultivating some of the natural products that we’re going to use in this research,” Vattem said. “That is very, very important because it can assist in potentially reclaiming some of these lands that have been used for coal mining.”

Kopchick said that part of what makes EBI special is one of the institute’s main goals – patenting products that result from its research.  “Hopefully, the patents will lead to interactions with industry that will ultimately increase job development,” he said.

Vattem and Wu both noted that natural products are a growing market. According to an article on OU’s website about the Black Elk-funded research, natural products are estimated to generate between $75 billion and $90 billion in revenue worldwide each year.

The broader natural products research platform at EBI receives some funding from the university and OU Foundation, although the researchers say they are always open to hearing about grants from other entities to help fund further research.

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