Scientist seeks to unlock the secrets of herbal formulas
By Emily Ford
For more than 3,000 years, people in China have used natural, plant-based medicines to successfully treat ailments from high blood pressure to headaches.
Yet no one really understands how these herbal remedies heal the body.
A scientist at the N.C. Research Campus plans to find out.
One of the world’s leading experts in traditional Chinese medicine, Dr. Wei Jia (pronounced “way jaw”) has launched an effort at the $1.5 billion biotechnology complex in Kannapolis to unlock the secrets of some herbal formulas and create new drugs.
Jia will use cutting-edge genomic tools at the Research Campus to pinpoint the compounds in some herbal and traditional Chinese medicines that are responsible for changes in human health, especially metabolic diseases like diabetes.
“This is a perfect match,” Jia said. “I couldn’t have found anything better.”
Jia co-directs the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s program in Kannapolis, called the Center for Research Excellence in Bioactive Food Components. He also serves as the interim director of the metabolomics lab in the Core Laboratory.
Metabolomics is the simultaneous measurement of thousands of chemicals in either blood or urine that make up an individual’s metabolism.
Ancient formulas for traditional Chinese medicines are well-documented, Jia said. Practitioners can use dozens of medicinal plants in one formula, and several compounds might work together to create the health benefit.
“We will try to identify the compounds and pick the most potent,” he said.
Jia’s research focuses on drug discovery and development from herbal and traditional Chinese medicines.
His team at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, one of the top universities in China, developed a drug to treat bone cancer.
They proved that plant components used to treat a condition known as Xiao-ke, similar to early stage type 2 diabetes, can dramatically lower blood sugar.
They also proved that a fermented tea called Pu-erh tea can lower cholesterol and cause weight loss.
“The tea can change your metabolic system very rapidly,” Jia said.
Jia’s group, which includes about 30 researchers, is split between China and Kannapolis. Jia calls the work “all-consuming,” and the team has already published 10 papers in 2009.
They will continue studying Pu-erh tea in Kannapolis. Post-doctoral fellow Dr. Guoxiang Xi recently moved from China, and another research associate arrives in May. More are coming in the fall.
Once the bioactive compounds in the tea are identified and characterized, Jia’s lab will have a choice. Depending on the number and potency of the compounds, they could create a dietary supplement and then partner with a beverage company that would add the compounds to a product.
The road to a dietary supplement is about two or three years long.
Or they could pursue a therapeutic drug, which takes much longer to develop.
Jia came to the Research Campus ready to collaborate, and he has not been disappointed.
He already has projects lined up with Appalachian State University and UNC-Chapel Hill and hopes to work with Duke University on its long-term medical study based in Kannapolis.
He’s also met with more than 10 private companies interested in partnering with UNC-Greensboro.
So far, no deals have been signed.
“We’re just getting to know each other,” he said. “We’re trying to find the niche.”
Most of the businesses want Jia’s lab to analyze their products and identify the bioactive components.
“By having us do that, they carry a lot of weight,” he said.
Eventually, UNC-Greensboro will develop its own products and seek companies to develop and market them, he said.
“We want to establish some sort of connection with industry, to get a feeling for commercializing some of our products,” he said. “I’m a newcomer here, and I need to learn these things ó who is most suitable for us and most strategic for us.”
UNC-Greensboro has suspended its global search for another co-director for the Kannapolis center due to the state budget crisis, said Dr. Debbie Kipp, chair of the UNCG department of nutrition. Kipp serves as interim co-director with Jia.
Eventually, the school plans to hire an additional faculty member whose research won’t focus on traditional Chinese medicine but something compatible, such as cell biology, Jia said.
The school recently added a masters-level registered dietitian, Stephanie Carriker Peters, who splits her time between Kannapolis and Greensboro. She will do community outreach in Kannapolis, Kipp said.
“She is able to talk about not only normal nutrition and health but also eating disorders and therapeutic diets,” Kipp said. “We want to make sure that we are involved with the community and that nutrition education is being shared with community.”
Jia and his wife lived in the United States while he earned his master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Missouri at Columbia.
They knew they wanted to return someday.
With their two children, they moved to Concord from a city of 18 million people.
“It’s quiet,” he said. “We like it.”
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