About me and my research
My name is Aurélie Jacquet and I am a Ph.D student at Purdue University. I come from France and I have decided to do my research in the USA to discover a new culture and get the opportunity to make an impact in our world. As a kid I used to travel and spend a lot of time exploring outside, so my interest in bringing plant, people and science together may come from this period.
I study the medicinal plants used in Nepalese and Native American traditional medicine to cure Parkinson’s disease. I visited various areas in Nepal as well as the Blackfeet (Montana) and Lumbee (North Carolina) tribes in the USA. In Nepal and in the USA, I interviewed traditional healers as well as local people and collected plant samples. These samples are then analyzed in my lab to identify therapeutic activities. Parkinson’s disease is an age-related disorder and no therapies are currently available to cure this disease. This work aims at discovering plant-based therapeutics that would be easily available for people in Nepal and developing countries. Today, 80% of the people in the world use medicinal plants as primary source of health care and don’t have access to modern medicine. Discovering new plant-based therapies would critically impact people’s life by providing cost effective and sustainable medicines. On the other hand, this work could lead to the formulation of more modern drugs and impact our own lives and our families. We are all inhabitants of this world and we all have a role to play to make it better for now and the future.
A great resource to learn about ethnobiology can be found here (videos):
Does the word mRNA remind you of something? Maybe you’ve heard it in some obscure biology class… Well mRNA is very important in understanding how botanical extracts can protect us. Our body is a real ballet of proteins working together to protect our cells from any potential harm. And these proteins are produced from mRNA!
The DNA is transcribed into mRNA, and this mRNA is used as a recipe to produce proteins (see cartoon below from Rajkumar T., Indian J Med Paediatr Oncol., Vol. 31, No. 2, April-June, 2010, pp. 72-74). Therefore, a major question is to understand if the extract-induced increase in good protein in due to an increase in mRNA production.
My experiment consist of growing cells, treating them with different concentrations of botanical extracts for different amount of time (e.g. 6h/12h/24h) and see if the treatment have any effect in the mRNA level of the proteins of interest! If there is an increase, it means that the extracts can modulate the protective effect at the DNA level. I am just getting started with this type of experiments and I am excited to see what results I will get!
Oh and I have made new extracts: elderberry!
One of the ways to identify protective plants is to test for their antioxidant power. What happens in the neurons of Parkinson’s disease patients is that there is destructive oxidative stress going on. Oxidative stress means that some unstable molecules steal electrons to others, creating a chain reaction that leads to the damage of proteins and even DNA. Although our body has the tools to bring this oxidative stress to a reasonable level, it can be overwhelmed and not contain these dangerous products anymore.
My objective is to find medicinal plants that can stimulate the natural defenses of the cells to fight the oxidative stress. To identify such plants, I have a very specific cell-based assay that focuses on only one of these natural defenses, a protein called Nrf-2. To see if the botanical extracts increase Nrf-2, I treat the cells with different concentrations of these extracts and see if the green color in the cells changes. An increase in green fluorescence means that the extracts increase the level of the good protein Nrf-2! So far I have identified a good number of medicinal plants with this very specific potential!
The first image shows a basal green fluorescence. The second image shows a very high level of green fluorescence! It means that there is a lot of Nrf-2 protein! These cells were treated with Curcumin, a compound found in turmeric. The blue dots are the nucleus of the cells.
I am back from North Carolina, and it is now time to have a fresh look at all the data collected. This fieldwork season has been pretty amazing. I documented way more than I imagined and I had such a wonderful welcome from the people. I feel very lucky. I documented uses such as crafts, wood fires, plants for ceremonies and medicine… I have a lot of herbarium specimens to identify and mount, I will have to contact people from the Purdue herbarium to help me out!
It’s fieldwork time!!!
I have my field contacts, harvest equipment, press, notebook and camera! I am in Pembroke, North Carolina for two weeks to interview Lumbee healers and people with knowledge of the medicinal plants. I am still asking for plants used to treat Parkinson’s disease but I am also asking for any type of plants used for medicine or craft. It’s going to be an amazing season!
Early in the month, I was in Cherokee, NC for an amazing conference. I attend talks about various topics related to ethnomedicine and ethnobotany. I have even met a good friend of mine who was a BIA fellow until last year! I met other BIA fellows and did a good deal of networking. I also presented a poster to show my work with Nepalese medicinal plants. I joined the student council of the Society for Economic Botany, I am super excited to work with these amazing students to make our science better everyday!
March is finally here and it is time to get started with organizing the fieldwork. So exciting!! I will be in the field for 2-3 weeks, and I will meet Lumbee indians from North Carolina. I hope to learn more about their traditional medicine which is both spiritual and herbal medicine. I have to organize the meetings, the trip (book plane tickets, shuttles…) and renew the IRB (Institutional Review Board) authorization to conduct research involving Human subjects. The IRB approval is critical, and the main purpose is to make sure that I follow a protocol that keeps data safe and anonymous.
I am also getting ready for attending the Society of Economic Botany conference in May, where I will present a poster. This is a very important aspect of scientific research: during conferences, we have the opportunity to present our work, get feedback and network with other researchers. I can’t wait to be there!
February is a good month! I have finally published my first scientific article. It is an article about Nepalese traditional medicine. In this paper, I report the uses of various medicinal plants that are specifically prepared to treat symptoms related to Parkinson’s disease. Most people make teas or pastes of roots or leaves. Sometimes they will use fruits and seeds but it is not the most common. They also usually use fresh or dried plant material without distinction. Here is the paper:
The publication process involves peer review, which means that other researchers read the article and give their opinion. They suggest to make changes to enrich the paper and ensure good quality research.
I am now getting started with the Blackfeet paper! I’ll give more updates on it soon!!
Happy New year everyone!
A new year come, and a new 6 month plan is written! My 6 month plan is a list of all the experiments I want perform during the next semester. I have a lot of ideas, but I know it takes a lot of time and optimization to obtain data from new experiments, so I think I will only try 1 or 2 new experiments this semester. This month there is nothing new going on in the lab. I have been working on making extracts’ toxicity curves to determine which is the best amount of extract to use. I have also been working on my chronic rotenone toxicity assay (see October’s post!). Briefly, rotenone is a pesticide that is thought to be linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease. I use rotenone to give Parkinson’s disease to my cells and then I add botanical extracts to see if the cells can survive the rotenone treatment. I’m having some nice preliminary data! I am also working on an original article about my research in Nepal to be published in the Journal of ethnopharmacology. I received some comments from two reviewers, and I am now working on revising the manuscript! In addition to all that, I am teaching an Organic chemistry lab this semester, so I spend a lot of time preparing the lab and getting ready for the teaching!!!
I wish you all a wonderful beginning of February!
December and January are always the most busy times of the year in terms of writing fellowships applications. I think I wrote 4 already and more are on the way. Fellowships are important for graduate students because they fund our research and help us focus on our projects. I am also working on making a few more water extracts. My objective is to be done with extractions by the end of the month. It is important to extract the plants no later than a few months after harvest otherwise the compounds in the samples may degrade and be lost. I am also working on an assay called MTT. It is an assay that helps determine the toxicity of plant extracts. It is a very important assay that will help me determine which concentration to use when I test my plants for neuroprotective activities!
Good news for the berry lovers! Small berries such as blueberry, mulberry and more unknown berries such as juneberry and chokeberry are great for your health! These berries contain high levels of protective phytochemicals (chemicals made by the plants). It is usually better to each fresh berries or juice, because the process of cooking destroys some of these protective phytochemicals. In my research, I show that these berries have a great potential to prevent diseases related to oxidative stress such as Parkinson’s disease! They can reverse cell death induced by environmetal toxins and balance the level of good vs harmful processes in the cell…
I have also been presenting my work to high school student during the “Next Generation Scholar” event at Purdue! It was great to explain what I am doing and why it is important! I had lots of samples to show and smell!
A lot of evidence show the potential effect of environmental toxins on the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Such toxins are pesticides and herbicides such as rotenone and paraquat. People exposed to these chemicals for a long period of time have more chances to develop the disease. It is a chronic exposure, which is a long exposure to very small quantities of the chemical. I am currently developing a model to reproduce this chronic exposure. I expose my brain cells to very low concentrations of rotenone for 1-4 weeks. I can see that the cells die slowly and their morphology change. My objective is to add my plant extracts and see if the cells are stronger and able to survive. Right now, I am able to study 1-2 samples at a time, but I am trying to develop an assay that will screen many samples at the same time. It’s called high throughput screening!
It is September! It’s this time of the year when all the BIA fellows travel to Pittsburgh for an annual meeting. I met and discovered the research of these outstanding scientists! The BIA team had a lot of great things planned for us. We started by meeting high school students who where here for the Eco-Challenge and to ask us questions about our research and life as scientists. Each group made a poster about a fellow. It was hard to choose which poster to display, they were all good! Congratulations, you did a great job!
We then gave a radio interview for the family program “Saturday Light Brigade”. This program, supported by the M.J. Berger foundation is called “Herbs in Action”. Last year I discussed about the Himalayan Birch. This year, I talked about sage. Last year’s interview can be found here: http://www.mjbergerfoundation.org/herbs-in-action
I had the opportunity to give two presentations this year. I gave one presentation to a general audience to present my work, and I gave one presentation to the Society of Botanists Artists. I presented my scientific and photographic work and explained how visual arts help me share my scientific interests and stories.
It was such an intense weekend! The BIA team had tables set up for us in the conservatory. We were able to discuss with a wide range of people, from kids to students and families! I presented some props and pipettes that I use every day. Once again, it was an amazing human experience!!!
Thank you to the photographers for taking all these nices images.
I’m back from the field with more than 30 plant samples!! I now have a lot of work to make the extracts. Making an extract is the process of extracting chemicals from the plants. People use water, ethanol, met
hanol or many kinds of chemicals depending on what they want to achieve. I use water of ethanol because these are the only liquids used by local people and healers.
I first have to dry and grind, then I add the liquid. I evaporate the liquid and lyophilize to obtain a dried product!! The samples are stores at -80°C for best conservation!
This month, I traveled to Montana to meet Blackfeet people. I traveled to Browning, a town in Glacier county, Montana. It is also located within the Blackfeet reservation, a 3,000 square miles land managed by the Blackfeet people. The Blackfeet have an ancient tradition of herbal medicine. This tradition is still in use today and I was able to meet some Native healers. I learned that Native American herbal medicine involves sacred and spiritual components, and according to Blackfeet tradition, the whole world is connected through the Cosmos. Healers have the power to learn medicinal uses from the plants themselves and prepare decoctions, teas and ointment to cure patients. A very specific ritual involves smudge and mind purification of the healer before collection of the plants for medicine.
Because our plants have their own spirit, the healer have a great respect for the plant kingdom. Tobacco offering is practiced before each plant collection to ask the plant for its help to cure the patient.
I collected many plants used by the healers and dried them using a food dehydrator! It worked pretty well, and it smelled good in my hotel room! I will now have to extract these samples to study them in my lab!
Many people helped me for this project and I can only thank them:
Dr. Jay Vest: http://www.uncp.edu/home/vestj/
Pauline Matt, creator of “Real People Herbal”
Jack Gladstone: http://www.jackgladstone.com/Oki,_Welcome.html
June is here and it is time to leave for my fieldwork! I am leaving Indiana to visit the Lumbee indians of North Carolina. I will ask them how they use herbal medicine to treat symptoms related to Parkinson’s disease. These symptoms are resting tremor, rigidity of the limbs, memory loss, loss of olfactory function, depression… Cancer and epilepsy are also very interesting because some proteins that are involved in cancer are also involved in Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy is a disorder of the brain, like Parkinson’s disease. So far I interviewed a couple of people and the Lumbee have a rich herbal medicine. If you are interested, you can find the excellent book of Loretta Oxendine (I had the pleasure to meet with her) “Herbal Remedies of the Lumbee Indians”. As I have been told, “there is a plant for each ailment”, we just need to find it!
The Lumbee tribe is named after the Lumber river and today it is one of the largest tribes East of the Mississipi river. There are 55,000 members and the cultural center is Pembroke, North Carolina. The Lumber river is certainly the most mysterious river I’ve ever seen. The water level is very high, the water is very dark and moves very slowly.
This month, I have been doing a new experiment, it is called ‘the neurite length’. A neuron is composed of a cell body and long ‘arms’ called neurites. Neurite is the global name for the axons or dendrites that you can see on the picture. When people have Parkinson’s disease, the length of the neurites is very short. Therefore I try to find medicinal plants that have the capacity to increase the neurite length! To do that, I use a very powerful microscope to take pictures of the neurons and I measure the length by using a software. It is very easy, I just draw a line along the neurite and the software calculates the length for me!
I’ve also started collecting plant samples to study their activity on Parkinson’s disease. So far I’ve collected roots of Wild ginger, leaves/roots of Datura stramonium, fruits of Juneberry (very yummy by the way!), leaves/roots of Wild carrot and some more! I did a 100% water extraction to collect the chemicals that are in these samples. This time I tried an extraction with fresh tissues and it worked well. I use a kitchen blender to mix the sample with water and I agitate the solution for 45 min at 50°C. Then I filter and freeze-dry the extract!
This past month has been dedicated to the most important exam of my Ph.D studies. It is called the preliminary exam. Each University has its own rules but the objective is the same, to test the student ability to design and defend a research project. The project is not related to my current research: I chose epilepsy and how medicinal plants can help find a cure for this disease.
Epilepsy in a neurological disease:
the neurons do not properly communicate and they become hyperexcited. They send wrong signals to the other neurons and it results in seizure events. However, there are many reasons why these neurons do not communicate properly. One of these reasons is inflammation of the brain. When the neurons are damaged, some cells (microglia and astrocytes) secrete specific proteins to protect the neurons and stop the injury, and it is called inflammation. It has been shown that if inflammation is too strong, it does not protect the neurons anymore but damages them further. So I hypothesize that if a medicinal plant can reduce inflammation in the brain, then it can help reduce neuronal damage and the seizures associated. There I many ways to test this hypothesis. One of the ways is to feed epileptic mice and see if they experience less seizure events. Another way is to look at the level of proteins that are responsible for inflammation and determine if the medicinal plants reduce the level of these proteins.
I will defend this project in a few days, and hopefully I will pass and become a Ph.D candidate!
I am very happy to continue this year with a new project supported by Phipps and the BIA program.
This year, I will study the Native American traditional medicine. I will interview elders and experts in traditional medicine to understand how they treat symptoms related to Parkinson’s disease (tremor, partial paralysis, memory loss…). I will then be able to compare my results to the results obtained in Nepal. I will collect some plant samples, generate herbarium specimens and study the plants in my lab.
I would like to study tribes in Michigan, North Carolina and Florida. I choose these 3 areas because some of the plants I studied in Nepal grow in there, so I think the tribes will know how to use these plants. It will be very interesting if they use the plants for the same purpose as the Nepalese healers. It would mean that the plants are very likely to have this effect.
I soon I have my final travel plans I will post it here!!
This month I started a new project that will be incorporated in an upcoming co-authored publication. The purpose is to screen botanical extracts to identify a potential activity against the neurotoxin Paraquat. Some of these botanicals are grape skin extract and blackcurrant extract. These botanicals have been selected based on their rich content of anthocyanin. Anthocyanin are chemicals naturally occuring in many fruits, and they are very good for our health! It would be great to have such plants effective to treat Parkinson’s disease because they are higly consumed and it would be easy to propose preventive diet strategies. To do this experiment, like any other experiment, it’s important to be very precise when adding the compounds to the cells. I work with very small quantities: micrograms to nanogram volumes!!
In the photo on the left, you can see a small tube labelled ‘VJ”. It stands for Valeriana jatamansii, one of the plants I collected in Nepal. This plant is indicated for the treatment of fever, cancer and cold.
Part of my work involves data analysis. I have been analysing the data I obtained from my fieldwork in Nepal. One of the first statistical analysis is called ‘Informant Consensus Factor’ or Fic. The purpose of the Fic is to characterize the traditional knowledge of medicinal plants in a community. If the Fic is high, it means that the people I interviewed use the same plants to treat the same symptoms. It is very interesting for me to obtain high Fic because if everybody use a plant to treat fever for example, then this plant is very likely to have a real activity on fever! Another analysis helps to determine what people use the most between barks, leaves, roots, flowers, fruits… I am currently working on analysing correlations between some of my data. For example I would like to know if some parts of the plants are more used to treat certain symptoms. For example, are the leaves more used to treat fever? Or we could ask if a specific botanical family is more used to treat fever. If the answer is yes, it might means that this family has chemical very active to treat fever!
So I still have some more work to do, finish writing my paper and publish my results!!
This month, I continue to conduct pilot studies that will become main experiments this semester. In addition to mitochondria impairment, I focus on reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS are harmful species that can damage many components of the cell. I will add botanical compounds to the cell growth media and measure the levels of ROS. I hope the extracts will reduce the level of ROS in the cells. There are many ways to study ROS. For example, we can do like for the mitochondria and visualize the ROS with green fluorescence. Another technique is called flow cytometry and automatically counts the number of green cells. That is the technique I try o develop with my labmates. It’s better than simple visualization because it provides quantification and it is very precise.
I would like to share this picture below, it is my best science picture for 2012! You can see neurons and astrocytes (big flat cells-they help protect the neurons). The blue spots are the nucleus of the cells stained with a specific dye that recognizes the DNA.
This month, I’d like to share some research on my new cells. A number of pathways are affected when we get a disease, and a very important feature is the impairment of mitochondria. Mitochondria are the power plant of the cell. They produce and provide the energy necessary for the cells to perform their daily activities. To determine if the miotochondria are healty, we add a specific dye called TMRM to the culture media. If the mitochondria are healthy, they will take up the dye and be fluorescent. What you can see on this picture is not a single mitochondria but thousand of them! I hope my botanical extracts can help the cell to survive parkinsoninan insults by helping the mitochondria to be healthy!
This month, big news. I received new cells, they are called WI-38. These cells are used to study the process of aging and the changes that occur in cells. These studies help to understand why our cells stop working properly when we get older and if there are thing we can do to reverse it. I will feed the cells with botanical extracts (like blueberries) to determine if these plants can prevent natural damage in the cells.
- Keira et al. Acta Cir. Bras. vol.19 suppl.1 São Paulo Dec. 2004