New Worlds: From carnivorous plants to the medicine cabinet?

The idea that liquid from a plant pitcher could stave off infection has been documented in the folk literature of India.

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March 21, 2010 08:26
3 minute read.
for judy's column

new worlds 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Carnivorous plants are a boon to mankind because they devour pesty insects such as beetles, ants and flies that they lure into sticky cavities called “pitchers.” But now, according to Tel Aviv University scientists, it seems these self-feeding plants could also serve as the basis of a new class of anti-fungal drugs. Until now, no one has discussed the anti-fungal metabolites found in the trap liquid of these plants, which produce it in a gland.

Carnivorous plants possess a highly developed set of compounds and secondary metabolites to aid in their survival. When the insect victims fall into a pitcher, the plant’s enzymes are activated and begin dissolving their new meal, obtaining nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen which are difficult to extract from certain soils. According to Prof. Aviah Zilberstein of TAU’s department of plant sciences, compounds produced by the carnivorous plants “act as natural anti-fungal agents. In the tropics, competition for food is fierce, and the hot, moist environment is perfect for fungi, which would also love to eat the plant’s insect meal.”

The idea that liquid from a plant pitcher could stave off infection has been documented in the folk literature of India, where people drink such liquids as an elixir. “There is a lot of room for developing compounds from nature into new drugs,” says Zilberstein. “The one we are working on is not toxic to humans. Now we hope to show how this very natural product can be further developed as a means to overcome some basic problems in hospitals.” The team has just published a paper exploring that potential in the Journal of Experimental Biology, based on the biology of the carnivorous plant Nepenthes khasiana. This species, originally found in India, is also being cultivated in TAU greenhouses.

In a study conducted by Zilberstein, Dr. Haviva Eilenberg from her lab and Prof. Esther Segal from Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Prof. Shmuel Carmeli from TAU’s school of chemistry, the unusual components from the plants’ pitchers were found effective as anti-fungal drugs against human fungal infections that are widespread in hospitals. The primary results are encouraging, the team says. After initial tests of the plant proteins and enzymes that dissolve the chitin (a polymer found in the outer skeleton of insects and also found in other low life forms) of fungi, Zilberstein assumes that – in the right clinical conditions – the pitcher’s secondary metabolites could be turned into effective anti-fungal drugs that avoid the evolution of  resistant strains of microorganisms.

KEEPING TABS ON YOU

The technology transfer arm of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – Yissum Research Development Company Ltd. – has introduced a novel method for recording and analyzing how people move around. The novel system monitors people’s movements and use of open space to provide accurate data for use in healthcare, urban planning, retail yield management, law enforcement and tourism management. The technology was developed by Dr. Noam Shoval and Michal Isaacson, of HU’s geography department.

Since behavior is very unpredictable, data on how people move around in amusement parks, national parks and other tourist venues often comes from subjective human testimony. Costly mistakes in planning such sites are usually detected only after the project is complete. There thus exists a need for an accurate, objective system that monitors how people actually behave.

The system uses Global Positioning System (GPS) technology for recording the location of people for the desired period of time. During the tracking period, participants are required to carry a small GPS unit. The tracking data is then analyzed using a proprietary time/space analysis engine to derive a map indicating the routes taken by each participant and the length of time spent in each location. The data obtained can be analyzed in real time, creating virtual “radar” of visitor activity throughout a destination.

The system was recently assessed at Spain’s PortAventura theme park. One of the interesting outcomes was that the tracking and analysis system revealed that people of different nationalities behave differently.

“Urban tourism is a growing sector with profound effects on the city's layout and economy. This system is an extremely sensitive tool for tourist activity segmentation,” says Yissum CEO Yaacov Michlin. “It provides important information that is impossible to gather in traditional ways, such as locating areas that are under-visited by tourists, and determining the effects of time, weather and a multitude of other parameters on tourist activity.”

The tracking and analyzing system may also have far-reaching medical applications. In collaboration with Hadassah University Medical Center orthopedic surgeon Dr. Yair Barzilay, a system has been developed for detecting the mobility of patients after surgery as an objective measure for their recovery. Patients carry a GPS unit after the operation, and future development will integrate additional sensors that will allow the combination of GPS data with physiological data such as heart rate and blood pressure.

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