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Folk Medicine Meets Modern Medicine Along the Atchafalaya

Joseph A. Marcus

Modern medicine was born out of folk medicine. Today, though, modern medicine feels pretty distant from whatever folk traditions have stuck around, and it's easy to assume they don't have much in common. Travis Lux tells us about a collaborative study from Pennington Biomedical Research Center investigating the healing potential of native Louisiana plants.

On a piece of land along the Atchafalaya River, Larry Allain is collecting plants. 

“That’s apiosa mericana root,” he says, as he hands me the freshly plucked plant. “If you wash it, you can eat it raw. But they’re better cooked.”

What do they taste like? Potatoes. Allain says potatoes are “the chicken of the vegetable world.”

There are so many of these edible little plants in this patch of wetland, he sees a meal: “We could make suppah!”

But we’re not here to make supper. We’re here for science. Allain is a botanist for the US Geological Survey’s National Wetlands Research Center. And he’s part of a new study out of Pennington Biomedical Research Center investigating the healing potential of native Louisiana plants. The goal of this study is to figure out whether any of the plants used in Cajun and Creole folk medicines might be helpful for treating diabetes. Generally, you might not expect folk medicine and modern medicine to work together like this. But that might be the thing about this study that excites Ray Brassieur most. He’s an anthropologist with University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

“You know, it requires a certain amount of respect for traditional knowledge. And that is not always how science works. Because in a lot of ways – especially during the 20th century at different times – science has tried to replace traditional knowledge. But as a result, a whole lot of knowledge has been thrown to the side. And now, you know, some people are believing that there’s a value in taking another look.

One of the plants they’re taking another look at today is the Lizard’s Tail.

“It’s just a common wetland plant. Easy to find. Grows in the shade,” says Allain.

It’s got a stalk of teeny, white flowers that gradually taper toward the end. Sort of resembling the proportions of…a lizard’s tail. It was sought by Cajuns and Creoles for it’s anti-inflammatory properties, and it would have been either steeped into a tea or applied directly to wounds. Once back in his lab, Allain will send the Lizard’s Tail sample to collaborators at Rutgers University. Folks at Rutgers will prepare an extract, then send that extract to Anik Boudreau at Pennington.

“And then we do the experiments on the actual cells here in the lab,” says Boudreau. “In our case what we’re looking for are effects on insulin signaling.”

In other words, things that have to do with diabetes.

But it’s not easy work. For one, plants are pretty chemically complicated. There can be thousands of compounds in a given plant sample. And even for the same plant, its chemical makeup can change with the seasons. Says Boudreau:

“And there can be thousands of chemical compounds in there…that complexity makes things difficult in a way, but it also means that there’s a huge potential there.”

And they’ve been pretty happy with their results so far. Overall, they’ve tested about 100 extracts, and about 10 percent of those may be effective. But it’s still early in the process, so she’s quick to add this caveat:

“When I say that it was effective, it was effective in increasing insulin-mediated, AKT phosphorylation in a context of insulin resistance, in this particular muscle cell line that’s growing in a dish…”

So what does that mean?

“We’re at the very, very beginning here…It’s not: ‘It’s effective in treating diabetes.’”

Due to the fact that The National Institute of Health recently renewed funding for Pennington’s study, the research is poised to continue for at least 5 more years.