Unlocking The Science Behind Grandma's Remedies

The Naked Scientists spoke to Professor Monique Simmonds, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
19 February 2006

Interview with 

Professor Monique Simmonds, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew


Kat - So you're actually looking at plants that really do heal and try to suss out why. Can you tell us a bit more about what you do?

Monique - I'm working at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and we've got a team of people who are at the moment concentrating on British plants. We've been neglecting our own back garden because we've been so busy looking at everyone else's in the past few years. We're going back and looking some of those traditional uses where we can't really explain how they work, and seeing whether there's nay substance behind it. So the group of scientists at Kew are helping to isolate the different compounds in these plants and then study into seeing if they can explain how they work. So we're using different techniques to fractionate the compounds. You start off with a tea or infusion from the plant. One of the keys to our work is really concentrating on how the plants were traditionally used and the year in which they were collected. Often we've made mistakes when somebody has come to us and said that this plant was used for x, y and z and we've gone out into the gardens at Kew, collected it and paid no attention to when it was traditionally used.

Kat - So can you give us an example of that?

Monique - Some of the work we've done of figworts, which is used in the early part of the year, shows that it doesn't contain the same compounds later on. So it's really important to get it in the spring time. There is a similar kind of thing with goose grass, which is used for wound healing.

Kat - So goose grass is the stuff with all the burrs that gets stuck to dogs.

Monique - That's right. Now that has been traditionally used to treat leg ulcers. Now over the last few years that we've been studying it, we've identified some compounds that have antibacterial activity, which protects the wound as it's healing. It also has a little bit of antioxidant and anti inflammatory property. It also stimulates fibroblasts. These are the cells that need to multiply to help heal a wound.

Kat - So that suggests that there's lots of good stuff in there. So do you think that if you just purify one chemical out of it and make it into a drug, you will risk losing all the other good stuff that's in there?

Monique - Yes. I think from our work, when we tested the crude infusion and then isolated it, we often found that the activity was lost.

Kat - how are you finding your ideas?

Monique - Well it comes from a range of different sources. It's partly remedies passed down by older people, who remember them being used before 1945 when the health service came in. That's a real source of information. So our work is partly to find out about traditional uses, but also to conserve that use. We also go back to some of the older herb books, so it's a combination of information. We don't want to investigate things that have already been well studied. We're looking for new leads.

Kat - So something like peppermint, which has been well studied, you wouldn't necessarily be interested in?

Monique - Not unless it's for a new use. So far, there have been lots of plants that come up again and again. These include dock, dandelion and elder. Elder is used frequently, but we don't fully know how it's used. Another example is crab apple. Now crab apple was used to treat forms of cancer, such as stomach and colon cancer. Why? We don't really know!

Kat - Do you think that they have antibacterial properties because a lot of stomach cancer is caused by a bacteria that lives in the stomach under acidic conditions.

Monique - Yes, this could be what's happening. Having fundamental knowledge about some of the roles of the compounds and the ecology of a plant is important. Plants produce these compounds not as medicines for us but to protect themselves from being attacked by fungi and viruses and also things like insects. We can make some advances using this information. So if it's a natural antibacterial, then that's where we'll often start.

Kat - When I used to live at home, I'd sometimes see my dog going out in the garden, eating stuff and then being copiously sick. Is it true that animals will seek out plants that can help make them better?

Monique - Yes, there's quite a lot of evidence that they do, especially if they've got infestations of fleas. They will rub themselves in things like lavender to get rid of some of the insects. If you look at the behaviour of apes, they will take some of the fruits to purge themselves of things like nematodes and intestine infections. So there's quite a lot of evidence that animals are selecting.

Sarah - Are you looking at animals to try and get clues about what to look at next?

Monique - We do take it into account but there's so much we could do here that we have to put some blinkers on, otherwise we'd just be overwhelmed. We'd love to tinker with everything but we can't because otherwise we'd never deliver anything. There's such a rich source of information out there that it justifies so much further research.

Mandy - Once this information is gathered, are you going to pass this information on so that it can be reproduced chemically?

Monique - The main emphasis of our project is to understand what's going on . At some time we will isolate some of the really active ingredients and that's where the compounds from the plants will most likely act as models and then will be synthesised. There's a stage where we might be able to help identify the proportions of compounds that should be there. That's where you could have something produced as a medicinal drug. One thing you've got to be really careful of is that if a plant works and you take it, you have to be so careful that you're not mixing it with some of the traditional medicines. If you have an active plant in combination with another kind of drug, you get adverse responses. When you get many of those, unfortunately the authorities will often act to ban the plant.

Kat - St. John's Wort is a problem isn't it?

Monique - yes, and you get things interfering with things like warfarin, which a lot of people are taking to decrease blood flow. When you get these interactions, it's also affecting what's happening in your liver.

Sarah - This is actually a problem with the pill as well. People often take St. John's Wort if they're feeling a bit depressed. It then interferes with their contraceptive pill and you get unwanted pregnancies.

Kat - Can you just tell us briefly about your remembered remedies project? How can listeners get involved with that?

Monique - It would be great if they could look back in their records or talk to some of the older members of the family and get in contact with us at Kew. We want information on what plants were being used for themselves but also for their animals. This is a collaborative project with herbalists and ethnobotanists, which are helping to collect remedies throughout Britain. Often people think that everyone knows about certain remedies, but usually they don't. One of the keys is whether they used plants in combination with other plants or by themselves. Please provide information about where the plants were used because the soil has an effect on the chemistry of the plant. A plant picked from Norfolk or Cambridge might have a very different composition of chemicals than something from Scotland or Cornwall.

Mandy - I suppose one of the problems with herbal medicines is that they're spread by word of mouth. Doesn't this make in dangerous?

Monique - Yes, although I would hate to say that it was dangerous because it's so easy to put this into a negative box. Remember, it was our medicine until the 1940s, and we relied on plants. Many people in the world still rely completely on plants. It's in this combination of techniques where things go wrong. The other thing is that when we grow the plants now, we are selecting plants that have higher concentrations of some of the active ingredients. We need to really know what we're dealing with and know more about the concentrations of the active ingredients in some of these herbal remedies being sold. But a professional herbalist will take a lot of this into account.

Kat - So Sarah, you're a GP. Do you find that more and more people are saying that they've tried complementary or herbal medicines?

Sarah - You do have to push people because it is something they don't admit to unless you ask them whether they're buying anything over the counter. Then they'll say that they're taking certain multivitamins or St. John's Wort. This is something we obviously take into account. It's also something that more and more people are asking me about. Often they've tried what conventional medicine can offer and they're keen to try something else.

Kat - Are you, Tai-Ping and Monique, keen to see Western doctors go on courses in herbal medicine?

Tai - Ping - We very much welcome that opportunity. In this country there's only one university that's offering such a course. At Cambridge we have students who are interested in studying complementary medicine, but they would have to wait until they've qualified before they have a chance to venture in that direction.

Monique - Of course, it used to be traditional that they'd be taught both. It's only in the last ten years that the teaching of the more traditional herbal medicine has decreased. Talking with colleagues, I've found that there's an increased interest in having modules on herbal medicine.

Sarah - Just the other day in our practice, we had a homeopathist come to talk to us about what they can offer.

Kat - Water!

Sarah - When I worked down in London we had a Chinese and herbal medicine doctor working with us who practised both, and it was very useful.

Kat - Aloe vera has been used for many years. What's in that?

Monique - You really can trace the usage of aloe vera to many years ago. It's got some compounds in called polysaccharides, which form a bit of a skin on the surface. It helps the wound-healing process occur naturally. It's also thought to stimulate the immune system if it's sometimes ingested, but you really have to be careful that you use the inside of the leaf of an aloe plant. So if you've actually got one, make sure you use the gel inside the leaf, not the compounds for the outside of the leaf, as this can cause a stinging sensation and some blisters. But aloe vera is used throughout the world for treating wounds.

Kat - And many people use poultices or other things you strap onto wounds too.

Monique - This is the fascination with what we do in parts of Europe and what happens in China. In Europe we often put a poultice on. Sometimes it's the leaves that are applied to the skin, or it's a extract that's put around the bandage. If you go to Asia, it's often an infusion and taken internally as a tea or something like that. So these are two very different approaches which can end up with the same result

Sarah - It would be interesting to know which is more effective.

Monique - Yes, because if you're taking it internally, the enzymes in your gut are going to alter the chemicals and they then have to be absorbed from your gut and get into the blood stream. There's so much we don't fully understand. I think that's why it's so exciting being in this type of work now because there are advances in molecular biology and analytical equipment which can be used to go back and study these plants.

Kat - Do you take any herbal remedies yourself?

Monique - No I don't actually. Would I? Yes and I must admit that I would be very interested in taking some Chinese medicine, especially if I knew they were good quality material.

Mandy - I think something we have learnt form this evening's programme is that if you've got a good herbalist, then hang onto them!


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