Natural Defense

Plant-based diabetes treatment shows promise

“I’m not one that is easily deterred,” Anneke Tucker says with a disarming smile. It’s a good thing. The 23-year-old Oregon State University senior from Lakeview, Oregon, has fixed her sights on nothing less than improving health care in rural communities. And along the way, she might throw in a new treatment for one of the nation’s most serious health threats, Type 2 diabetes.

Anneke Tucker has demonstrated the power of natural plant products to reduce glucose levels in people with Type 2 diabetes. (Photo: Frank Miller)

Anneke Tucker has demonstrated the power of natural plant products to reduce glucose levels in people with Type 2 diabetes. (Photo: Frank Miller)

Last winter, judges in a national competition, The Journal of Young Investigators’ Second Annual Virtual Poster Session, recognized her sklls and ambition when they awarded her first place for a video presentation on research with scientists in OSU’s Linus Pauling Institute (LPI). It was Tucker’s second presentation to a scientific audience.

The University Honors College student grew up in a ranching community and, inspired by her participation in Future Farmers of America, came to Oregon State University to study animal science. But instead of healthy cows, it was healthy people that drew her attention, so she switched her focus in the College of Agricultural Sciences to BioResource Research. Intent on getting into a lab to satisfy the required 400 to 600 hours of laboratory experience, she searched for a mentor and applied for undergraduate research funding from OSU’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute program and from the OSU Office of Research.

Natural Remedies

Then she met Balz Frei and Meltem Musa. The LPI scientists were planning to test plant extracts — grapeseed, Japanese knotweed and white and green tea, among others — for their ability to treat Type 2 diabetes. In addition to laboratory studies, they planned to do human trials. Tucker was hooked. “Since I was the only student working with Dr. Musa and Dr. Frei on that particular project, it allowed me to have a greater understanding of the overall goal of the research,” says Tucker. She followed the project from the start, asking questions along the way. “It seemed like a perfect match,” she adds, because she was taking classes in biochemistry and nutrition at the same time.

Tucker focused on two enzymes — alpha amylase and alpha glucosidase — that play a key role in diabetes by breaking carbohydrates down into glucose molecules. Glucose is vital since it powers our cells, and most people keep blood glucose levels within a healthy range.

But in those with Type 2 diabetes, blood glucose can rise to harmful levels. The disease has an unknown cause, and its symptoms are devastating: increased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, stroke, heart attack and high blood pressure; damage to nerves, kidneys, eyes, skin and mouth; osteoporosis. In the United States alone, 23.6 million people have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and another 54 million are thought to be pre-diabetic. The price tag: $218 billion annually, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Results Were Mixed

Working closely with Musa, Tucker compared the effectiveness of plant extracts to a prescription medication that carries a high price tag and has serious side effects. Her results were mixed. She found that several of the plant extracts are more effective than the drug in reducing the activity one of the enzymes, alpha glucosidase. For the other enzyme, alpha amylase, the drug was more effective.

Tucker is applying to medical school and intends to specialize in women’s health and nutrition. “Ultimately,” she says, “I would love to open a clinic in a rural and under-served community (which is where my fiancé and I come from) and offer medical services and education regarding women’s health and life-long nutrition and health.”

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Learn more about undergraduate research opportunities at OSU.

 

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