Assistant Professor of Dermatology Jack L. Arbiser was out walking near his home when he happened upon a common magnolia seed cone, picked it up, and decided on the spot it should be examined from a pharmacological point of view.

Arbiser’s sudden interest isn’t as arbitrary as it might seem. He has long believed that many native plants may contain useful substances as yet undiscovered.

“We’ve been interested in discovering small molecules that are inhibitors of [potentially harmful] new blood vessel formation,” he says. “I’ve always thought plant products have not been adequately screened for that. In 1998, for instance, we found that the yellow pigment in curry inhibits the formation of blood vessels, and we just received a patent for that. People go to the Amazon looking for unusual plants, but my feeling is that the plants right here have not been thoroughly tested either.”

Arbiser literally took the cone home, boiled it, filtered the substance, and tested the extract. As it turned out, his hunch was right: “We found that the extract itself inhibited the growth of endothelial cells,” he says. When tested in mice, the compound slowed tumor growth by half. The results of a study headed by Arbiser were published in the September Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Arbiser hopes the magnolia substance will eventually be used in drugs to treat cancer as well as inflammatory disorders such as psoriasis and arthritis. Other uses could include protecting against coronary artery disease.

“We’re testing a number of other plants right now,” Arbiser says. “So far, the magnolia is the most successful, which is interesting because it’s been sitting right under our noses for many years.”–P.P.P



© 2004 Emory University