13 January 2010

Scientists begin search for super Aloe vera

From prehistoric times, Aloe vera has been know for its healing effects - now, using DNA technology, scientists from the University of Copenhagen will set out to trace related plant species with even more effective pharmaceutical effects.

Aloe vera plant- Traditionally, Aloe vera has been used to heal wounds and to achieve anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory effects. As early as 1500 B.C., historical sources tell of the use of plant fluids as a means of treating skin problems, burn injuries, and constipation in ancient Egypt, says Nina Rønsted, an expert in plant systematics and an associate professor at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Department of Medicinal Chemistry.

With a 1.6 million DKK EU grant, the Aloe research project will led by Nina Rønsted and Associate Professor Anna K. Jäger. The scientists' goal will be to find ‘the new Aloe vera' - which will be a plant with even better medical properties than the already commercially familiar plant.

One big family

The highly complex plant family Aloe is much more than the Aloe vera used today in dermatology and cosmetics. There are around 500 Aloe species in Africa, on the Arabian Peninsula, and on Madagascar.

The plants contain different types of active ingredients. Combining the newest DNA technology with the indigenous African population's knowledge of herbal medicine, the scientists will now become wiser in use of those ingredients.
Africa dependant on plants

In Africa, the roughly 130 natural Aloe plants have long been used in traditional folk medicine. The scientists will now help the locals determine which species are most efficient against specific illnesses.

- As much as 80 percent of the African population - for cultural and financial reasons - depends on nature as the supplier of medicines. Products available on the market are unrealistically expensive, and the distances of Africa are great: Hospitals and pharmacies are far away, explains Nina Rønsted.

The scientists will investigate approximately 200 Aloe species across genealogy as well as across the geography of Africa. The field will then be narrowed to around 50 species, reflecting the variety of the family.

- The gel from the Aloe plant's leaves contains a number of compounds. Primarily we will be studying the contents of anthraquinones, which have antibiotic effects, and polysaccharides, which have both anti-inflammatory effects and an ability to heal wounds, states Nina Rønsted.

Sustainable production

The scientists themselves will collect the plants either in Africa or at the University of Copenhagen's Botanical Garden, which is in possession of a unique collection.

- Many Aloe plants are endangered which is why it is a great advantage to use living collections and avoid harvesting plants that are threatened by extinction. This is always the dilemma within our field of research. How do we ensure sustainable research of natural resources and, in the long run, the production of beneficial medicines in cooperation with the pharmaceutical industry?, asks Nina Rønsted.

The native medicine man naturally uses the plants that are available - but perhaps a plant across the continent might be much more efficient? As such, one of the scientists' objectives is to determine the advantages of cultivating the most active Aloe plants and not exploit the endangered species.