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Investigating the chemicals in herbal medicines

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13th March, 2024

A forensic scientist at NSW Health Pathology has been granted funding to investigate the chemical characteristics of psychoactive plants, with the aim of improving public health and safety.

Giv­en the grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of herbal med­ica­tions, foren­sic prac­ti­tion­ers are com­ing across plant-based phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals more often.

The Unit­ed Nations Office on Drugs and Crime voiced alarm in its 2019 World Drug Report on an increase in plant-psy­choac­tive drug seizures.

The Illic­it Drug Analy­sis Unit (IDAU) at NSW Health Pathology’s Foren­sic & Ana­lyt­i­cal Sci­ence Ser­vice (FASS) reg­u­lar­ly encoun­ters herbal plant mate­r­i­al seized by the NSW Police.

Senior Foren­sic Sci­en­tif­ic Offi­cer at the IDAU Pragna Gaur says it’s crit­i­cal to pro­vide reli­able research for assess­ing plant-based alka­loids that are encoun­tered in foren­sic and pub­lic health contexts.

“I recent­ly secured a grant from the Aus­tralia New Zealand Polic­ing Advi­so­ry Agency (ANZPAA) Nation­al Insti­tute of Foren­sic Sci­ence (NIFS) to assist my research project relat­ing to the chem­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion of plants used for men­tal resilience and well­be­ing,” she said.

“My research is a col­lab­o­ra­tion between West­ern Syd­ney University’s Nation­al Insti­tute of Com­ple­men­tary Med­i­cine (NICM) and IDAU FASS. It will focus on the phy­to­chem­i­cal pro­fil­ing of botan­i­cal plant mate­r­i­al used to treat neu­ro­log­i­cal ail­ments (such as depres­sion, anx­i­ety dis­or­ders, and sleep­less­ness) and men­tal resilience.

“This includes plant species from the plant groups Fabaceae (Aca­cia spp.), Solanaceae (eg, Datu­ra spp), Cac­taceae (eg, Lophopho­ra William­sii), and Con­volvu­laceae (eg, Argyreia ner­vosa and Ipo­moea spp.).

“Some of the plants I work with are more com­mon­ly known as wat­tle trees, Morn­ing Glo­ry, Angel’s Trum­pets, and dif­fer­ent vari­eties of cactus.”


A woman's hand holding a bunch of leaves and yellow flowers.
Aca­cia plant mate­r­i­al col­lect­ed for the project.

Ms Gaur aims to devel­op a com­pre­hen­sive chem­i­cal pro­file of the plant extract and iden­ti­fy known nat­ur­al alka­loids that have been demon­strat­ed to affect the cen­tral ner­vous system.

“My research will lay the ground­work for devel­op­ing and improv­ing method­olo­gies for iden­ti­fy­ing alka­loids like trypt­a­mine, mesca­line, and tropine, allow­ing us to pro­vide bet­ter ser­vices to our stake­hold­ers and the foren­sic community.

“Over­all, our nov­el find­ings will help to improve pub­lic health and safety.”

She says many com­mu­ni­ties con­tin­ue to use herbal plant mate­r­i­al as a med­i­cine despite a lack of research.

“Despite their long and well-estab­lished use, our under­stand­ing of herbal med­i­cines’ chem­i­cal com­po­nents are not well known and require fur­ther research,” Ms Gaur said.

“To prove their safe­ty and effi­ca­cy to the com­mu­ni­ty and to pro­vide a safe, inex­pen­sive, and read­i­ly acces­si­ble alter­na­tive to mod­ern med­i­cines, more sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies are essential.”


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