Long before pills, vaccines and sour cough medicine, there were plants. The traditional use of plants to heal and cure has been recorded in various documents, some of which Marianne Collard ’15, a biological engineering major and Spanish minor, used for her research on the health effects of the plant Fenugreek,Trigonella foenum-graecum.
Collard works in the lab of Prof. Manuel Aregullin, plant biology and molecular biology and genetics. She joined Aregullin’s lab, the Laboratory of Natural Products and Medicinal Chemistry, in the end of her sophomore year after taking his class Plant Biology 3800: Strategies and Methods in Drug Discovery.
“I was interested in plants, their medicinal properties and applying those to human health, which is the sort of research he does,” she said.
Collard began studying phytoestrogens, chemical compounds found in some plants that, if consumed, can interact with human hormones. As the name suggests, phytoestrogens are similar to the human hormone estrogen.
These plant compounds can bind to human estrogen receptors and mimic their effects. For example, according to Collard, both human estrogen and phytoestrogens are known to promote breast milk production in lactating women.
In order to find a plant containing phytoestrogens, and one that had not been widely studied, Collard searched indigenous, ethno-botanical records for plants used to increase breast milk production. According to Collard, such plants were likely to contain phytoestrogens. The least-studied plant turned out to be Fenugreek.
“Now, the process of our research is to isolate the exact compound [in Fenugreek] responsible for the reported biological activity found in these records,” Collard said.
The only engineer in Aregullin’s lab, Collard uses chemical techniques such as thin layer chromatography and spectroscopy to analyze Fenugreek. She works in the Biotechnology Building on cell biology assays, and in the Plant Sciences Building, where she does most of her chemical analysis.
Greater understanding of phytoestrogens may have significant implications for women with some types of breast cancer. According to Collard, some breast cancer cells are known to proliferate in response to estrogen.
“Those women may have to limit their estrogen intake,” Collard said. “If they regularly eat foods that contain phytoestrogens and are elevating their estrogen intake without being aware of it, it could cause potential health hazards.”
But Fenugreek also has potentially beneficial effects on health. Indeed, major applications of Collard’s research involve both toxicological and medicinal applications. Depending on one’s particular health situation, one might be advised to avoid Fenugreek or eat it. These effects depend on what chemical compounds she finds in the plant.
“In the long run, it could be used for medicine, but right now we are just taking the first step,” Collard said. “Does it have estrogen activity, and if so, what compound is it? What does it tell us about how we can use it?”
Aside from doing research, Collard is also captain of the cross-country team and runs for the track team. She has also been a Learning Strategies Center tutor for introductory chemistry.
Collard said she is interested in applying to graduate school in pharmacology and eventually, running her own lab.
“My ideal career would be to conduct clinical trials on more natural medicine and prove or disprove whether they work,” she said.
Through her research, Collard said she hopes to bring attention to a plant that may significantly affect human health. Much of this stems from the fact that the Food and Drug Administration does not regulate many plants that are used as complementary or alternative forms of medication.
“By showing that there definitely is this compound that has estrogenic activity, we are raising awareness for people and saying, you might want to keep your eye on it,” Collard said.