The power of plants

Medicinal chemistry prof finds fame in tea leaves

by Ranjit Arab

 

Photo by Kelly Heese/ University Relations
The American Chemical Society recently honored Lester Mitscher, KU distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry, with a lifetime achievement award. Mitscher is considered an authority in the burgeoning nutraceutical industry.

Twenty years ago, if you had told Lester Mitscher that he would be best known as an expert on green tea and other natural medicines, he probably would have laughed in your face.

"Those would have been fighting words," says Mitscher, KU distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry.

Nonetheless, his tireless efforts to travel the far corners of the earth in search of new medicinal possibilities among plants have made him an authority in the burgeoning $4 billion-a-year nutraceutical industry.

Recently, that career of innovative research and teaching was recognized by the American Chemical Society, which honored Mitscher with a lifetime achievement award during a symposium this summer in Kansas City, Mo.

"Les Mitscher has been a renowned researcher for decades. His research career has focused a tremendous amount of attention on the University of Kansas," says Jack Fincham, dean of pharmacy. "His colleagues in the department and the school take a great amount of pride in his noteworthy accomplishments."

Despite a prolific career that spans more than four decades and includes 14 U.S. patents, six books on drug chemistry and numerous awards, Mitscher is perhaps most widely recognized for his research on the benefits of green tea.

In 1997, Mitscher found that green tea contained high levels of the disease-fighting antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCg. His research concluded that the EGCg in green tea was up to 100 times more effective than vitamin C and up to 75 times more effective than vitamin E at protecting the body against free radicals - renegade oxygen-filled molecules that can cause damage to cells and DNA strands, making them more susceptible to diseases such as diabetes, some forms of cancer and arthritis, Alzheimer's disease and many others.

Since Mitscher delivered those findings, the popularity of green tea has skyrocketed, and with it Mitscher has been in high demand as an expert on the benefits of drinking the age-old Chinese beverage - something this modest and dedicated scientist could never have imagined. His most recent book, The Green Tea Book: China's Fountain of Youth, already has exceeded his wildest expectations.

"I had no idea it would be so successful. I expected it to sell a few hundred copies, but it sold 20,000," Mitscher says.

Why have green tea and other herbal medicines captured the public's imagination? Mostly because they appeal to people who want to return to a simpler way and regain control of their life, says Mitscher, who isn't for or against herbal medicines, but is in favor of investigating them scientifically.

"The public's fascination with herbal medicines has outpaced medical authorities and their knowledge of it," he says. "People who are neither zealots for or against these herbal medications should be allowed to examine them with an objective eye."

And that is exactly what Mitscher is doing. Currently, he has turned his attention to another popular herbal medicine - Echinacea. Through a multimillion-dollar grant provided by the National Institutes of Health, Mitscher and colleagues in the nutrition department at the University of California, Los Angeles, are conducting research to determine whether Echinacea is capable of boosting the immune system.

Although the research is not yet completed, Mitscher says the results thus far are favorable.
"What we are finding is that Echinacea definitely stimulates the cells of the immune system, preparing it to attack foreign substances," he says.

That's good news for Kansas, which is one of the few places in the United States where Echinacea, also known as the purple coneflower, grows wild.

While others look into the possibility of growing Echinacea as a cash crop, Mitscher is busy trying to determine the specific areas of the plant that give it immune-enhancing qualities.
"At least we are starting to see some research in these areas and a few of them are bearing up," he says.

And, until all of the herbal medications currently on the market are tested in a scientific manner, Mitscher will always have work to do - even though he has already been cited for a lifetime of achievement by one of the most prestigious scientific communities around.
"It's definitely an honor," Mitscher says, "but I'd like to think that my lifetime isn't over yet."

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August 25, 2000
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