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In a bid to develop future medicines, U of T study sheds light on complex, plant-based compounds

Researchers at U of T Mississauga studied chemicals known as terpenoids, which, in cannabis plants, may work in conjunction with cannabinoids to produce medicinal effects (photo by MysteryShot/iStock via Getty Images)

Researchers at the University of Toronto are shining a spotlight on medicinal plants like cannabis, Pacific yew and deadly carrot, paving the way for future research on the most promising plant-based drugs.

In particular, researchers in the lab of Michael Phillips, an assistant professor in U of T Mississauga’s department of biology, are studying chemicals known as terpenoids. Naturally produced by plants, terpenoids can help a plant attract pollinators or even deter insect attacks.

Humans encounter plant terpenoids every day – a whiff of pine from a Christmas tree or the tingle of mint from toothpaste – and the natural compounds can also offer important therapeutic applications for human health. Cannabinoids produced by cannabis plants, for example, can offer relief from chronic pain conditions while paclitaxel from the Pacific yew tree are used in chemotherapy to stop cancer cells from dividing.

With hundreds of thousands of terpenoids to choose from, the U of T Mississauga resarchers sought a way to gather research on terpenoids used specifically in medicine and medical research. Their work is published in the journal Molecules.

“This literature review is an educational tool that demonstrates there are some very interesting and medically active terpenoid products,” says Matthew Bergman, a PhD student and the study’s lead author.

“It brings to light the legitimate compounds that are present in, and made by, plants and broadly looks at different classes of terpenoids that are of medical value.”

“The idea that most of our medicines come from plants isn’t new, but bringing this research to the forefront makes it more accessible to undergraduate students, other researchers and the general public,” adds Phillips, who co-authored the study along with master degree student Benjamin Davis. “Our paper summarizes the most recent developments, and what we consider to be some of the most promising and proven plant drugs in the terpenoid families.

“Gaining a better understanding of the genes and enzymes involved could help science to boost plant productivity and allow science to take advantage of the plant’s natural ability in a sustainable way.”

Phillips says that extracting terpenoids can damage the plant or even endanger a species, but synthetic versions can be prohibitively expensive and difficult to produce.

“If we can make use of the plants as ‘green factories,’ there is less impact on the environment to obtain these products,” he says.


U of T Mississauga researchers Matthew Bergman and Assistant Professor Michael Phillips

For U of T Mississauga students enrolled in Phillips’s undergraduate biology course – medicinal plants and human health – the study will provide a springboard to future research projects with the unique plant collections housed in U of T Mississauga’s teaching greenhouse.

“These review articles are useful to remind us of the current state of research on some of the compounds closely related to what we are working on,” says Phillips. “This gives us a lot of ideas for incoming students and creates new research opportunities for students to do real research in the lab.”

The study received support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.