Building a partnership to explore the botanical therapeutics of Cuba

Drs. Brittany L. Graf and Ilya Raskin from the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University are building a one-of-a-kind partnership with Cuba. As experts in the study and development of plant-derived therapeutics for human health, these scientists are excited about the unexplored biodiversity and traditional medicinal knowledge harbored in the Caribbean nation located 90 miles from the Floridian coast (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. “La medicina verde llegó para quedarse,” or “Green medicine is here to stay,” a quote from Raúl Castro, the President of Cuba, indicating the nation’s priority to preserve its wealth of botanical therapeutics.

By working with the support of the Florida Keys Tropical Research Ecological Exchange (T.R.E.E.) Institute, a non-profit organization that has led conservation and ecotourism initiatives in Cuba for over a decade, Graf and Raskin are actively synergizing their efforts with a network of Cuban investigators who are eager to pursue collaborative research (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. The holistic network of specializations in the field of plant natural products research and development that Dr. Brittany L. Graf is working to harness and synergize by building a collaborative team among Rutgers University and various institutions in Cuba.

The groundwork for the Rutgers-Cuba-TREE collaboration began in 2014, when Graf led bioexploratory training workshops at Gallego Otero Medicinal Plant Farm and Research Station and Cienfuegos Botanic Garden Cienfuegos, Cuba (Fig. 3). These workshops utilized the screens-to-nature technologies that were developed by the Global Institute for BioExploration (GIBEX), a program initiated in the Raskin Lab that has transferred plant extraction and bioassay tools to more than ___ countries since 2004. Since then, Cuban botanists have screened the biological activity of over 150 locally-grown plant species, encountering several plants with antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-diabetic potential.

Fig. 3. Screens-to-nature bioexploratory training workshop underway (left) and the Gallego Otero Medicinal Plant Farm and Research Station near Cienfuegos, Cuba (right).

Graf and Raskin are currently working to establish a formal collaboration between Rutgers University and the University of Cienfuegos, Cuba, in order to enhance Cuba’s capacity to pursue further studies on their bioactive plants.  State-of-the-art research technologies in the Raskin Lab are already underway to explore the nutritional content, digestibility, and gut microbial selectivity of malanga (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), a tropical tuber crop used to support infant nutrition and reduce gastritis in adults in Cuba.  As part of a larger NIH-funded project to study moringa (Moringa oleifera), the so-called “tree of life” from which all plant parts are used as food or medicine throughout the tropics, Graf and other Raskin Lab researchers have discovered the anti-inflammatory activities of isothiocyanates derived from moringa may be applicable in the mitigation of arthritis and other chronic diseases.

Fig. 4. Left: Malanga (Xanthosoma sagittifolium), a tuber crop used in Cuba to promote infant nutrition and prevent gastritis in adults. Right:  Moringa (Moringa oleifera) growing as a “living fence” in Cuba. Multple parts of the plant are used as food and medicine.

Graf is working diligent to complete these studies and make the findings available for the public and scientific community (Fig. 5), while also supporting local efforts in

Cuba to begin to probe the phytochemistry and therapeutic potential of other traditionally used plants.

Fig. 5. Dr. Brittany L. Graf and the first Rutgers Alumni tour to Cuba in January 2016.