A pioneering system which uses a plant's DNA to identify and authenticate a species has been developed in Leicester. Experts from De Montfort University (DMU) have developed a method which can detect the use of illegal or counterfeit plants in medicine and could also be used to boost conservation by identifying and monitoring the exploitation of endangered plant species.
Currently, species are identified by measuring levels of chemical compounds in plants but the same level of compounds may be present in a number of different species.
DNA identification relies upon the genetic individuality of the species which is unique and therefore is much more accurate. The system, which is also faster and cheaper than the current means of identification, can detect the presence of the plant species expected in a product as well as detect any adulterant material, therefore showing if the plant medicine being tested is what it is supposed to be.
Scientists working on the new method at DMU are currently focused on the authentication of plants used in complementary and alternative medicines. These medicines have been increasing in popularity in Europe and America in recent years, with 35% of adults in the UK having used them.
The system has already proved successful with St. John's Wort, one of the most highly used medicinal plants in Europe and America, used to treat depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. It is also currently being tested on Black Cohosh, one of the highest selling medicinal plants, used to combat menopausal symptoms, menstrual cramps, arthritis, muscle pain and indigestion.
Over the past decade Black Cohosh has been linked to a small number of cases of liver damage and other significant health issues but on inspection it has been suggested that the adverse reactions may have resulted from a substitute plant being used instead of the genuine one.
The potential harm that could result from adulteration of plant medicines is the driving force behind the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency's implementation of the EU Traditional Herbal Medicines Directive.
This requires suppliers to register their products before they sell them -- a very time consuming and expensive process. The use of this DNA system could reduce the timescale and provide a simpler method to demonstrate compliance with the regulators.
Adrian Slater, Professor of Biomolecular Technology at DMU, is leading the research. He said: "The development of this test could revolutionise the way information is collected on different species and will allow for better accuracy when plants are identified and authenticated.
"This could have huge implications for the billion pound medicinal plant business as until the development of DNA testing you couldn't be sure that what you were being sold was the genuine product. It could also greatly improve plant conservation and help to identify and monitor endangered plant populations." The £50,000 research project is being funded by the East Midlands Healthcare and Bioscience iNet. It is hoped that the system will be available for use in 2015.
The research is being conducted in DMU's Faculty of Health and Life Sciences. Other research highlights within the faculty include the development of an artificial pancreas, a test which can determine the amount of medication in the blood by a single spot of blood and a tool which can help in the early detection of skin cancer.
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