Through the Rutgers-based Global Institute for BioExploration (or GIBEX), Raskin and his colleagues are seeking to help countries around the world—in particular, those with developing economies—learn how to harness the power of plants for human health. Rather than just grabbing samples for research and drug development back in the United States, Raskin and a team of graduate students work with traditional healers, academic researchers, and scientists in far-off lands to collect, document, extract, and uncover the health-improving properties of everything from nut oils to wild berries.
IN SEARCH OF PLANTS
By providing training and equipment, GIBEX makes it possible for university-based scientists in other countries, as well as in Native American communities, to explore their own botanical diversity and identify the chemical compounds responsible for the health benefits of native plants, from bergamot leaves (thought to have antibacterial properties by the Lakota) to quinoa (viewed by Ecuadorians and others as beneficial for stamina and endurance). Those discoveries can then be used for the potential development of drugs, dietary supplements, and food additives.
It’s all part of Raskin’s philosophy of empowering developing nations to make the most of their plant biodiversity—without exploitation or what’s sometimes been labeled as “biopiracy.”
“A significant amount of plant biodiversity is outside the United States,” notes Raskin, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and the president of GIBEX. “Now those nations have the ownership, they have the discovery, and they have the patents.” And, Raskin adds, researchers from abroad will often partner with U.S. companies to commercialize their discoveries.
“There’s a tremendous demand for what we do, and we do it on a shoestring,” says Raskin, noting that GIBEX receives funding from charitable foundations and countries where GIBEX conducts workshops. But, he adds, “Funding has been limited.”
COLLABORATION AND RESEARCH
Rutgers graduate students play a key role in traveling to other countries to train scientists, using a special toolkit developed by GIBEX consisting of inexpensive materials, such as X-ray film, baker’s yeast, and an off-the-shelf, jerry-rigged grinding tool. For the graduate students, it’s a chance to broaden their view of the world, meet scientists from other cultures, and engage in original research. The experience can be a vastly enriching one, as Rutgers students meet researchers at universities outside the United States, as well as local leaders and traditional healers. “It makes them citizens of the world,” notes Raskin.
Brittany Graf, a Ph.D. candidate in plant biology, has led GIBEX training workshops in Bhutan, Kenya, and Namibia, as well as in Alaska and North Dakota. The workshops give her a sense of “the cultural values that shape the nature of scientific research” around the world, she says, and provide inspiration for her graduate work at Rutgers.
Rocky Graziose, a Ph.D candidate studying the antimalarial properties of traditional plants, traveled to Namibia to conduct GIBEX training. “The training was a great experience,” he says. “It allowed me to make strong collaborative connections with scientists that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It also opened my eyes to the type of advanced research that’s possible in a developing country.”