New Brunswick

Saint John scientists study plants in TB fight

Scientists in Saint John are scouring the woods and shorelines for plants that could help in the global fight against tuberculosis.

Team at University of New Brunswick says early results promising

Scientists in Saint John are scouring the woods and shorelines for plants that could help in the global fight against tuberculosis.

"We've been able to find endophytic fungi from plants here in New Brunswick that can inhibit or kill TB," said John Johnson, a biology professor who works with the team of graduate students at the University of New Brunswick Saint John campus.

The work by the Natural Products Research Group, started in 2007, is still in the early stages, stressed Johnson.

Cow parsnip, also known as heracleum maximum, is one of the plants scientists are testing for TB-fighting properties. (Wikipedia)

"If we came up with something tomorrow, it could be 10 years to 15 years before it goes through all the steps, all the development, before you can get it to some kind of a point where you're ready for a clinical trial," he said.

Still, Johnson is hopeful the team is on the track to finding new antibiotics that could change how doctors treat the disease.

TB claims more than a million lives a year worldwide, but has largely been eradicated in North America, which has meant little innovation, said chemistry Prof. Chris Gray, another member of the team.

"Now we're faced with this problem where we have a disease that affects a third of the world and the frontline drugs that we're using are at least 50 years old."

The global rise of drug resistant bacteria stresses the need for new antibiotics and it's no coincidence researchers are turning to nature, he said.

"The length of time that nature has taken to produce these chemicals, we just can't reproduce that in the lab."

Instead, the team is breaking plants, fungi, algae and seaweed down to their basic level and testing them, said Kathryn Melvin, a graduate student who was busy looking at the seasonal tissue extracts from a plant called cow parsnip on Thursday.

"This compound in the plant has already shown it has antimicrobacterial activity and we're looking to see if it's higher in different amounts in different tissues," she said.

The early results are promising, said Melvin.

There are about 200 medicinal plants in New Brunswick's forests. So far, the team has done work on 12 of them.

Sunday is World TB Awareness Day.