- 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
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
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
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,
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
"It's definitely an honor," Mitscher says, "but
I'd like to think that my lifetime isn't over yet."