Where Western Science Meets Herbal Medicine

September 30, 2019

Medicinal plants have been used by many people over generations, all over the world. Gingko is used to treat conditions from asthma to fatigue, garlic can be used for lowing blood pressure, and echinacea is used to prevent colds. Yet medicinal plants have been undervalued in the medical community because their effects and chemical underpinnings have not been well understood from a western science perspective. Graduate student, Kate Sammons, wants to shift that perspective and make herbal medicine more mainstream.  

Kate Sammons’ research aims to paint a more detailed chemical picture of medicinal plants. “Historically, people would focus on a single component, because that’s what they could readily extract, characterize, and attribute activity to. I want to see everything that is going on in the whole plant, how it all works together to have an effect” Sammons explained. To do that, Sammons is using yarrow (Achillea millefolium) as a case study. “Yarrow has a long history of human use, it’s found all over the world, and it has a lot of chemical variation, so it makes a great test case that could apply to other medicinal plants”. Yarrow has many medicinal uses. The leaves can relieve a toothache, while the rest of the plant can be used for reducing fever to helping with gastrointestinal issues. 

Sammons grows yarrow, in a randomized pattern in her garden to limit environmental effects that may occur. Once the yarrow is grown, she runs a battery of tests: ploidy analysis, to reveal the number of copies of chromosomes there are in a plant; genotype analysis, to determine the differences in the genetic make-up; and chemical analysis, to determine the chemical composition of the plant. Sammons is hoping to pinpoint Kate with blue essential oil from yarrowand describe the source of the chemical variation within yarrow populations. 

One colorful difference Sammons has seen so far is that some types of yarrow produce an essential oil that is dark blue while others are pale yellow. “This is something that people have known, but it is always interesting to see because of the stark color contrast between the essential oil samples,” Kate said.  

Because of her outstanding academic work, Sammons has been chosen as a recipient of the Herman Charles Cohen Fellowship for Dissertation Improvement as well as the Anne S. Chatham award in Medicinal Botany. She reflected on how these awards have given her greater latitude when making experimental choices. “I am able to make choices about my research that are good decisions for science. To not have to choose the cheapest option for my work has given me a lot of freedom”. Sammons is using some of her award funds to travel to a historical botanical medical library in Cincinnati, Ohio. She wants to contextualize her research by tracking the shift from herbal medicine to western medicine in parallel to the development of modern technology.  

Sammons’ long-term goal is to educate people about herbal medicine, bridging the ideological gap with Western medicine. She hopes that raising standards in herbal medicine and increasing public awareness will help boost its mainstream use. “If we familiarize more people with herbal medicine, it would help to build a connection with plants and the earth, and it could lead to a more sustainable future.”