Can We Harness the Medicinal Properties of Plants to Help Treat Diseases Like Osteoarthritis?

Jefferson researcher tells us how she is studying the active ingredients in plants like turmeric that could have medicinal or healing benefits.
professor diana cundell
Diana R. Cundell, PhD, professor of Biology and Director of Pre-Medical Studies at Jefferson's College of Life Sciences.

Medicinal plants are a rich source of bio-active compounds. Many drugs that are regularly prescribed to patients are derived from medicinal plants. They’ve long been used in many cultures to cure all sorts of ailments, and in many non-industrialized societies, they act as a cheap alternative to expensive modern drugs. However, the development of plants or plant extracts with potential medicinal benefits is hampered by insufficient scientific evidence and a lack of funding. Researchers like Diana R. Cundell, PhD, who has been a professor of Biology and director of Pre-Medical Studies at Jefferson’s College of Life Sciences for 23 years, is studying medicinal plants and their potential uses in treating various diseases. Read on to find out more about Professor Cundell’s research story and the questions she’s trying to answer.

Q: What is your research focus?

A: Active entities in the medicinal plants that I have researched during the past decade include curcumin (turmeric), gingerols (ginger) and most recently allicin from garlic.

Q: What’s one question you’re investigating?

A: How can the active ingredients in medicinal plants act either individually or as a complementary medicine for the treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases like osteoarthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer?

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research?

A: I have a family history of osteoarthritis, which has given me an up close and personal understanding of the double-edged sword to chronic use of conventional pain-relieving medicines. In researching safe alternatives, I came across a clinically tested curcumin derivative, which has successfully controlled the progression of my own symptoms to date.

Q: What’s a cool fact about your study subject?

A: Herbal medicines have become “fashionable” again as people are interested in more natural and safe methods to help manage long-term pain and inflammation. When the unbiased scientific information on the individual components in plant medicines are evaluated, many bear similar chemical structures as conventional medicines. Others have either novel effects or are able to impair inflammatory mechanisms without side effects.

Q: Many researchers have superstitions. Things they’ve done to cosmically help their experiments succeed. What are yours?

A: I always wear the same pair of earrings!

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

A: Being constantly able to learn new things and think of new ways to explain information. Using common analogies always works well and putting yourself in the shoes of your audience is a way to help them understand complex information. This is important when reviewing scientific literature to write an article or book chapter or communicating information to students. In the words of Albert Einstein “If you cannot explain it simply, you do not understand it well enough”.

Q: What’s something people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I am a second soprano with Jefferson Singers and in December 2019, sang my first ever solo in the “Matin Responsary” by Palestrina. It was special as this is typically sung by the Kings College Cambridge choir and we used to listen to them singing on the television each Christmas, when I lived in England.

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