|February 18, 2000||Volume 7, Number 11|
Studies into herbal medicine plants may lead to better standards for natural health products
By Keith Solomon
A University of Saskatchewan researcher is helping to establish new quality control standards in the world of natural health products.
Danielle Julie Carrier is a U of S Associate Professor of Agricultural and Bioresource Engineering. For the past two years, she has been conducting studies on various aspects of herbal medicines, or natural health products as they are officially called in Canada.
Such products are used for a number of medicinal purposes, and include the plants echinacea, feverfew, St. Johns wort, milk thistle, and even broccoli sprouts.
With the aid of a $75,000 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Carrier is hoping to bring some standardization to the natural health product industry.
At present, there is no way to ensure the purity or quality of these kinds of products, in part because few of the compounds within the plants are actually known.
"The market is way ahead of the science," she said.
Unlike pharmaceuticals that must undergo rigorous testing and analysis, natural health products are not governed by the same regulations. The regulations for natural health products are currently under revision.
"Some Canadian companies produce natural health products of very high quality," Carrier says. "Health Canada is taking an aggressive stand to set up regulations that will make the products even safer."
Due to differences in growing seasons and conditions, variation in product quality is a real possibility and a real problem for producers and consumers alike.
Carriers research is aimed at designing sound practices for handling raw botanical materials used in natural health products, thereby helping the industry understand how to maintain high standards of quality.
With the help of graduate students Reza Kabiganian and Hakibu Tanko, Carrier has been looking at the way the industry handles, dries and processes echinacea and feverfew. Echinacea is used as an immune system booster, while feverfew is often used to treat migraines.
Carrier said theres currently not much science in the way these products are handled and dried. For instance, because theres no standardization in drying techniques, it isnt known what effect different drying methods (and temperatures) might have on product quality.
But in preliminary tests, Carrier and her students found that at least one compound in echinacea, called echinacoside, was very sensitive to heat.
And since the amount of echinacoside in the product is used by the industry as a measure of quality, a producer who uses too much heat in drying echinacea is sure to reduce the value of her crop if not its effectiveness as well.
"If they dry it too hastily, then they may be sabotaging their own product," Carrier noted.
Carrier is now trying to quantify "marker compounds" in each part of the various plants.
Marker compounds are used as a measure of plant quality although it isnt known whether theres any connection between these compounds and the plants medicinal effect.
By learning just how much of these compounds exist in the leaves, stem, roots and seeds, researchers and producers will be able to see how the compounds are affected by various handling and drying methods, she said.
In November, Carrier was part of a Health Canada meeting aimed at setting research priorities for the natural health products industry.
She said Health Canada recognizes there is "a pressing need" to develop standards for growing, handling, drying and packaging natural health products, to ensure that consumers receive products of the highest quality.
"There is a great need for scientific research to ensure that companies that produce these products start with the best quality materials.
"The natural health products companies are working hard to have very high standards but we need more than trust."
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Ed. prof. works toward scientifically literate population
By Kathleen Prendergast
Traditional elementary and high school science education has not produced a scientifically literate population, nor has it provided most students with material relevant to their own lives, says University of Saskatchewan education professor Glen Aikenhead.
"School science courses should not just be geared toward the small minority of students who will go on to study sciences at university," he says.
While still serving this group, science courses should also be about producing a "scientifically literate" population students who "know enough to begin to question whats going on ... and understand what kinds of questions to ask."
Recently, Aikenhead was quoted in a Scientific American article on new innovations in high school science education around the world. He has a paper in a soon-to-be published book about science teaching in the new millennium entitled "Science, Technology, and Society: A Sourcebook for Research and Practice."
A Canadian pioneer in new approaches to science education, he has also served on a provincial committee that changed the science curriculum in Saskatchewan schools in the 80s and early 90s.
Using an approach called "cross-cultural teaching", Aikenhead is developing new science curriculum materials for teachers and students in northern Saskatchewan communities. He works with teachers and community members to produce teaching units specially designed to encourage aboriginal students to become engaged in science lessons.
To do this, educators must adopt an approach different from that of the typical "Euro-Canadian" classroom, he says.
"The first step is acknowledging that Western science does not represent absolute truths, but is a knowledge system with its own history and its own specific set of cultural values which often differ sharply from the students cultural values," he says.
The teaching units for Grades 6 to 11 attempt to bridge the cultural divides which may cause students to lose interest in science. The units begin by teaching aboriginal knowledge concerning the natural world.
"We validate the aboriginal knowledge, and having established that aboriginal framework, we then introduce western science in a way that allows students to make the connections to their own culture, but also in a way that doesnt assimilate students," he said.
For instance, theres a unit on "The Night Sky" which includes both western astronomy and traditional aboriginal beliefs about phenomena such as the northern lights.
Theres a unit on "Natures Hidden Gifts" about the use of plants for healing purposes, and a unit on "Survival in the Land." Students have also studied aboriginal inventions such as snowshoes and traditional northern food sources such as wild rice.
Aikenhead says the units incorporate most of the traditional sciences, such as astronomy, biology, and geology, but also examine "how science connects with the economics of the community." The science of wild rice, for example, has a direct connection to the productivity of the communitys harvest.
He stresses the curriculum materials hes helping to develop are reflective of current Saskatchewan policy on science education. "Were not changing what is the official curriculum," he says. "Were just making it more relevant to students . . . putting policy into practice."
Throughout his career at the U of S, Aikenhead has periodically taken time off for classroom teaching and research in Saskatoon and Calgary, and at international schools in Germany and Switzerland.
Aikenheads current project is funded from a two-year $150,000 grant from several agencies, including the Cameco Access Program in Engineering and Science.
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