Unlocking the healing power of plants to combat human diseases is a personal mission for Dr. Anait (“Ana”) Levenson, M.D., Ph.D., who has devoted years of research to this vital area.
At LIU Pharmacy since 2016, Dr. Levenson has been studying how bioactive compounds found in grapes and blueberries could lead to the cure of prostate and breast cancer. As a professor at the proposed new College of Veterinary Medicine at LIU Post, pending its accreditation, she’ll continue her work in this growing field.
Her intense interest in this subject recently drew her along with hundreds of the world’s other top researchers to convene in northern India at the foothills of the Himalayas for the second International Conference by the American Council for Medicinally Active Plants (ACMAP) together with the International Conference on Medicinal, Aromatic and Nutraceutical Plants from Mountainous Areas. The conference, held in February, was jointly arranged by the ACMAP, USA, and the Graphic Era (Deemed to be University), Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India.
“We are just beginning to understand the potential these plants could have for our health,” Levenson said.
Representing LIU, she chaired the “Human Health and Plants” session and was a keynote speaker as well as one of the organizers. A former vice president of ACMAP, Levenson continues to be an active member of its Board of Directors. Three years ago, ACMAP organized the first international conference in Lima, Peru.
“Both Peru and India are places where people have been using plants for medicinal purposes for thousands of years,” Levenson said. “These countries have those traditions but they lack the technology to work with them. Whereas we Americans have the technology and the researchers, but we lack that tradition.”
Her keynote lecture was titled “Chemopreventive and Therapeutic Effects of Stilbenes in Prostate Cancer.”
“Stilbenes are naturally occurring polyphenols (compounds) found in food and plants,” she explained. “Resveratrol found in grapes and red wine is the most widely studied stilbene compound with diverse pharmacological properties including anticarcinogenic effects. Another natural stilbene found mostly in blueberries is resveratrol’s cousin, pterostilbene, which also possesses anti-inflammatory, antioxidative and anticancer properties that can be used for chemoprevention and/or therapy in cancer. Pterostilbene exhibits more potent biological effects than resveratrol due to subtle differences in its molecular structure.”
Interestingly, she pointed out that India has a very low rate of prostate cancer, which she believes could be due to the preponderance of curcumin from turmeric in their diet. “A lot of studies do show that curcumin has anticancer, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties,” she said.
Although cancer is Levenson’s specialty, she wanted to emphasize that the scientific gathering was not a “cancer conference. It was about bioactive molecules from food and plants that can be used in treating different diseases.”
One of the most interesting connections Levenson said she made at the conference was meeting Professor Oliver Kayser, who is doing cannabis research at TU Dortmund University in Germany. He is also an Editor-in-Chief of Planta Medica, an international journal of natural products and medicinal plant research.
“He’s not a cancer cell and molecular biologist like me. He’s a medicinal chemist,” Levenson said, adding that she believes that multidisciplinary collaborations that bring a unique set of skills and a combined expertise in different areas of science are the key for new discoveries and successful research projects. Cannabinoids (CBD and THC) could be made into “more potent anticancer agents. This is what I want to study.”
Adding to the urgency of the conference was the prospect that climate change could wipe out many plants used in traditional medicine before scientists have the chance to examine their molecular structure in depth.
“We can’t allow these plants to die out,” she said, adding that one of the themes of the conference was a Himalaya farmers’ forum. “We have to study them more because they can offer us new compounds that we could use to cure diseases like diabetes and cancer. We don’t want to be too late!”
By all accounts, the conference was an overwhelming success. Levenson especially enjoyed meeting the Indian university students. “The students were very inspired and very enthusiastic,” she exclaimed. “We felt like celebrities!”
Now in the planning stages, the next ACMAP conference may take place thousands of miles away—in New Jersey. “We can’t go international all the time,” Levenson lamented. “It’s very, very hard to put together.”
But she has no doubt that the promise these plants hold makes it all worth it in the end.