Planting the seeds

Glancing out a picture window in his office at The North Carolina Arboretum, George Briggs notices how the clouds rolling over the mountain landscape create a constantly shifting tapestry of colors. “I believe that the environment a person is in has an influence on the decisions that are made,” he remarks.

High hopes: Cheryl McMurry and Jeff Schmitt share a vision for jump-starting Western North Carolina’s natural-products industry with what they call “natural biotechnology.” Photos By Jonathan Welch

Briggs, the arboretum’s executive director since 1987, knows a great deal about plants. He chaired the first World Botanic Gardens Congress in 2000, directed the Nebraska arboretum system for years, wrote a book about plants, taught horticulture and served on the boards of the Center for Plant Conservation and the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program.

And when Briggs and Jack Cecil, the president of Biltmore Farms, put their heads together several years ago to brainstorm ways to address the area’s economic challenges, plants soon emerged as the centerpiece of the scheme.

Both men serve on the Advisory Committee for Biotechnology in Western North Carolina. The 25-member body, an arm of the N.C. Biotechnology Center, includes regional economic-development experts, biotech professionals and representatives of local universities and businesses. Through the group’s meetings, a plan surfaced to employ biotechnology to study the medicinal herbs used by the Cherokee and mountain settlers for centuries. By uncovering new knowledge about plants, such as which ones might hold keys to treating cancer, they believed the region could gain a competitive advantage in the rapidly growing natural-products industry. The idea has since crystallized into the Bent Creek Institute, a research-and-development group that seeks to use advanced science to unravel and capitalize on the secrets of traditional healing herbs.

Homegrown healing, mountains of possibility

Established in January by the Advisory Committee for Biotechnology in partnership with the arboretum, the institute was initially funded by a $120,000 grant from the University of North Carolina’s Office of the President. To date, the fledgling research organization has collected some $1.4 million in funding, including $400,000 worth of equipment donated by private biotech firms.

But in some ways, the institute doesn’t seem to fit the mold. It’s headquartered not in some monolithic research center but in a tiny stone cottage, dubbed the “biotech bungalow,” at the end of an unpaved road on the arboretum’s property. Executive Director Cheryl McMurry, and Founding Director of Research Jeff Schmitt jokingly note that the last “natural product” to come out of the mountain cottage was moonshine.

Yet McMurry and Schmitt are hardly strangers to this esoteric branch of life-sciences research. Before moving to Asheville, McMurry—who’s also the N.C. Biotechnology Center’s western regional director—was senior vice president of the Austin, Texas-based Emergent Technologies, a venture-capital firm whose specialty is backing new biotech research and creating “new opportunities for regional economies.” Schmitt, meanwhile, was a founding member of Targacept, a Winston-Salem-based biopharmaceutical company, and his background encompasses everything from cancer research to studying Chinese martial arts.

Both Schmitt and McMurry believe the Bent Creek Institute’s work is a natural fit with Western North Carolina. “In this region, we’ve not had a great deal of technology-driven industry,” notes McMurry. “And yet, for wellness … we’ve had excellent medical facilities, an extraordinary group of practitioners, and we also have excellent conventional medical practitioners. That’s why we see this as such an opportunity for the region—because it really does bring to bear existing resources that characterize this area.”

Using science to unlock the health benefits of medicinal plants is the first step toward launching Western North Carolina as “an international location for medicinal-herb innovation,” according to a Bent Creek Institute executive summary, which goes on to note that the global natural-products industry is a multibillion-dollar market.

At present, however, there is little regulation to ensure product quality, says Schmitt. Imagine buying 10 bottles of valerian from a natural-foods store, he posits. “Say each bottle has 100 mg tablets. Your range of active components in these 10 bottles is zero to completely loaded, and there’s no way that most of them give you any indication. They may not know.”

The institute aims to create new standards for labeling, drawing on its discoveries in the laboratory. This would help create and sell a new line of what Briggs terms “trusted products” that would be certifiably more potent—and thus more beneficial to consumers.

Four research divisions are planned: a botanical-research division that will collect and study plants, a molecular-research division to design and commercialize new pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals, and two clinics: one for studying herbal therapies and another for alternative therapies such as massage and yoga.

At present, McMurry and Schmitt are the only staffers: She oversees the operation, and he’s busy doing research. Next on the agenda is a germ-plasm repository: a collection of medicinal-plant seeds that will be the only one of its kind in North America. The initial fund raising has been completed (including $150,000 from the Buncombe County commissioners), and an internationally recognized scientist will come on board as curator in mid-December, McMurry reports.

The first new building will be a mixed exhibition space and laboratory to house the germ-plasm collection. And they hope to launch the clinical program within the next three years.

“Think about BCI as the powerful spotlight and magnifying glass that we’re using to uncover value through the research program,” says Schmitt. “Once we make those discoveries, they can be turned into sustainable business opportunities.”

Eventually, McMurry envisions their work attracting a cluster of natural-products companies to the region. “What we hope is that because of the biodiversity here, all the assets (both natural and human), that there will be an awful lot of companies that will be interested in locating here—because of that intellectual-property production and because other companies are here,” she explains. “And that’s how you build a cluster. … We have so many partners that are working with us, and the response that we’ve gotten from academia, industry, economic developers and builders has just been extraordinary—locally, statewide, nationally and internationally.”

Not that biotechnology

Big ideas: George Briggs, executive director of the North Carolina Arboretum, was instrumental in bringing “natural biotechnology” to WNC for economic-development initiatives.

To those who equate biotech with dangerous, life-destroying science, the phrase “natural biotechnology” might seem an oxymoron. But Briggs, Schmitt and McMurry are all quick to point out that the kind of science they’re talking about stops short of genetic modification.

Biotechnology, they explain, is an umbrella term, and genetic modification is only one approach. “Beer brewing is an example of biotechnology,” Schmitt observes.

“Natural products and biotechnology have historically been somewhat at odds,” McMurry chimes in. “Yet here we have an application of a set of tools, and the definition of biotechnology is expanding daily.” The type of biotech they’re interested in constitutes a pioneering effort that could take the whole discipline in a new direction, they maintain.

“Instead of doing what a lot of botanical-prospecting operations are—like going to the rain forest and trying to find another treatment for malaria—we’re interested in understanding how whole plants do their thing, or whole organisms do their thing, in terms of wellness,” Schmitt explains. “This frontier is developing the technology to understand how that mixture of components works in the organism to eliminate disease, for instance. And that’s our huge scientific opportunity both in terms of basic research and in terms of clinical research. As far as our research has indicated, there’s no clinical research center on the planet that’s devoted to unraveling combination therapy. … Whether we’re looking at yoga for recovery from heart surgery or meditation for pain control, it’s all combination therapy. When you look at the [whole system] … the chances of untoward, unanticipated negative effects are greatly reduced.”

Another thorny issue that inevitably enters the picture is the debate surrounding intellectual property and traditional, indigenous knowledge. Acquiring patents is a key component of the institute’s economic-development strategy for the region. “Until we have that research that yields the intellectual property, there’s nothing to build a business on,” McMurry notes.

But Schmitt says the Bent Creek Institute’s approach will be a far cry from what’s been termed biopiracy—patenting traditional, indigenous knowledge for private economic gain—a highly contentious issue in places like India and some South American countries. “Say we have 20 different varieties of valerian in our germ plasm, and we know the active constituents of each,” he explains. “Through traditional and novel plant-breeding methods … we can create a cultivar that doesn’t exist anywhere else. That plant, in and of itself, then becomes intellectual property. So we have no intention of taking a native medicine and trying to patent it, or making it harder for practitioners to use it. That’s the furthest method from our minds.”

New hope for trillium

But will all this result in hordes of herb harvesters despoiling the landscape? What will the region look like once the institute’s ambitious goals have been fully realized?

“Hopefully, not much different,” says Briggs. Focusing on natural products, he believes, will actually promote a land-conservation ethic by playing up the value of natural biodiversity.

Schmitt agrees. “How can we have a great center for health-oriented wellness if the physical environment around us is falling apart through anthropogenic climate change and vice versa?” he wonders. Many of the plants to be studied already face a threat of extinction, notes Schmitt, and this research could be a key to protecting them.

He cites trillium (aka beth root) as an example. “The wild harvesters that I’ve been talking to tell me that over the last decade or so, there’s more and more stress in that entire species. There’s something very compelling when you show that there’s a medical use and you realize, oh my goodness, these things may go away if we’re not more careful about the environment.” Several months ago, the N.C. Biotechnology Center awarded Schmitt a $75,000 grant to study the plant’s cancer-fighting properties.

Research at the Bent Creek Institute could identify herbal components that fight tumors, for instance, or that are more bioactive than in other varieties of the same plant found elsewhere, McMurry suggests. “Then if that’s the case, using that plant in the development of medicinals becomes very important, and the price point goes up in the market,” she says. “That makes a grower able to make decisions about how to use his land in the most profitable way. … But it gives us a method to be able to keep land—to productively use land [while] sustaining the character of this region.”

Once it’s fully established, The Bent Creek Institute would also lend itself nicely to ecotourism, she notes. “In our vision and our dreams, we see laboratories with scientists working, where tourists can go through and look through these glass walls and see what’s going on, watch the development of these kinds of products from the field to the bottle.”

The Brevard-based Gaia Herbs is listed as a major partner in the BCI initiative. Greg Cumberford, vice president for strategic initiatives, says he’s seen anecdotal evidence that herbs raised on the company’s 250-acre farm might be more potent than other varieties, and he looks forward to seeing what the institute can find out. “To the extent that our analytical science in natural products validates traditional use, including the use of native Appalachian medicinal plants, the region will undoubtedly benefit in terms of becoming a supplier,” says Cumberford.

“The real deal”

All is not rosy in the garden, however. Back when Briggs and Cecil were first starting to think about bringing biotech to the region, Briggs says an incident in Seattle gave him pause. A state-of-the-art, computer-operated greenhouse at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture, which he’d been studying as a model for the arboretum, was firebombed by a group of ecoterrorists, causing $7 million worth of damage. The vandals, he says, were convinced that genetically engineered poplar trees were being raised inside.

They weren’t (they were actually in another greenhouse that emerged unscathed).

“That certainly got my attention,” notes Briggs. But it also caused him to think more deeply about how to introduce this kind of science to Western North Carolina, knowing that anything involving genetic modification would have been met with skepticism—at least—by the general public. And in the end, it led him to envision an approach that would truly be compatible with the region, he says. By establishing partnerships with growers and producers of natural products, and launching an effort that could ultimately be used as an argument for conserving biodiversity, Briggs believed the project would gain the trust needed for success. “It looks at the region as a whole, and addresses the holistic needs of the mountains,” he says.

“We have what I think is the real deal,” he adds. “This is something that can’t be exported, or duplicated.”

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One thought on “Planting the seeds

  1. Amanda Riggs

    I am so amazed that I came across this magnificent article. I absolutely love the idea of combining the emerging biotechnology research with the ever thriving natural plant products industry. This is exactly what I have been looking for. I am expecting to graduate from NC State University in May; my majors include Plant Biology, B.S. and Biochemistry B.S. This article has encouraged me to see out these individuals and perhaps pursue a career in natural biotechnology. Thank you!

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