August 2015, Healthy Life

Getting Creative: Turning Plants into Treatments for Disease

by Stephanie Ryan Malin

When you think of Louisiana foliage, you might think of the crisp, sweet smells and vibrant colors of azaleas, camellias, magnolias and crepe myrtles.

For Anik Boudreau and Elizabeth Floyd, Ph.D., they see native Louisiana plants as a creative answer to increasingly common—and prevalent—health conditions such as diabetes, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.

groundsel1As Boudreau explained, countless remedies we use today come from plants, many of which were inventive solutions used before doctors knew exactly how they worked. In the 1800s, doctors who detected a sweet smell in the urine of their patients advised their clients to chew on French Lilac to help slow down the frequent urination. That was before diabetes was even classified as a disease, Boudreau said. Today, a compound originally found in French Lilac is the most common diabetes drug, metformin.

Working together with Ray Brassieur, Ph.D., at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Larry Allain at the National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette, Floyd and Boudreau take plant specimens collected in Louisiana and send them to Rutgers University where extracts are isolated. From there, Floyd and Boudreau get to work testing these extracts to see which plants show promise for treating insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

Their work in the Botanical Research Center at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center is unique. The Botanical Research Center is spearheaded by Dr. William Cefalu, Pennington Biomedical’s executive director, and it is one of only five centers of its kind in the United States funded by the National Institutes of Health to evaluate botanicals in search of treatments to prevent or even reverse elements of metabolic dysfunction, diabetes, and pre-diabetes. Their work shows promising results.

e99c6cd9cab135eae6dfa7ec7fa49145Right now, Floyd and Boudreau are evaluating groundsel bush and lizard’s tail from right here in the bayou state to see how effective they might be at controlling diabetes.

Boudreau also points to research underway with Russian tarragon, which may be helpful in regulating how our bodies metabolize carbohydrates. She and other researchers at the Botanical Research Center found that the herb improved insulin resistance in mice, and the same herb shows promise in helping people too.

Bitter melon is another of Boudreau’s favorite plants to talk about because of its promise for the treatment of diabetes. Studies at Pennington Biomedical and other institutions have shown the plant to be beneficial in regulating both body weight and glucose metabolism in mice.

“Our work may be uncommon, but it is incredibly important, given that one in 10 people across our state have diabetes and one out of every three people have pre-diabetes,” Floyd explained. “We are laying the foundation for better treatments for diabetes and its related diseases, and if we can help even one person live a healthier, happier, longer life because of the work we have done, I would be content.”

Potential remedies using plants are only a part of Pennington Biomedical’s ardent efforts to learn more about better ways to prevent and treat diabetes and pre-diabetes.

25-plantEndocrinologists at Pennington Biomedical are seeking people across Louisiana to participate in an ongoing research study seeking new and better treatments for the disease. Specifically, people who have had diabetes for less than 10 years and who are currently only taking metformin for type 2 diabetes.

People who participate in this research study – known as the GRADE study – will be given one of four FDA-approved diabetes medications to take with metformin to see which works best at controlling blood sugar and supporting overall health. In addition, participants will receive diabetes medication, diabetes education and blood work at no cost.

If you are interested in participating in the GRADE study or one of Pennington Biomedical’s other diabetes research studies, visit and click on “Diabetes/Prevention.”