A scientist in white coat and safety glasses poses for a photo in a lab.

Partnership to Develop Kit to Discover Drugs From Natural Sources

Dr. Lukasz Ciesla looks at a plant extract in a jar.
Dr. Lukasz Ciesla examines a plant extract in his lab on the UA campus.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Researchers at The University of Alabama are leading a project with an industrial partner to develop a kit that speeds discovery of potential drug therapies from plants.

Dr. Lukasz Ciesla, assistant professor of biological sciences, is working with Regis Technologies Inc., a biotechnology company based in Morton Grove, Illinois, that offers services to expedite drug development, on a grant from the National Institutes of Health Small Business Technology Transfer program. The initial $250,000 award to the company allows the team to enhance the kit to become more customer-friendly and establish its commercial potential and feasibility.

“The ultimate goal is to develop a commercially viable kit that will speed up the process of finding drugs from natural samples,” Ciesla said. “The partnership with Regis Technologies is crucial to expand access to this innovation so more novel therapies can be discovered and begin the pipeline from the lab to patients.”

About 70 percent of drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were first identified in nature, but teasing out possible chemical compounds from the abundance of plants is time consuming.

“The potential of natural compounds is huge, but the main problem is that it is not very easy to work with plants or microbes because compounds produced by these organisms are present in a very complex mixture like a soup,” he said. “You figure out what is in that soup that causes the pharmacological effect, and that’s not easy.”

Natural samples are complex. An extract of a plant produces scores of chemical compounds, and finding one that shows pharmacological promise is done by isolating and screening them individually.

To cut through the noise quickly, pharmaceutical research has turned mostly to screening libraries of synthesized chemical compounds tuned for a specific purpose. However, nature is more diverse in the compounds it creates, and plants produce compounds designed for a biological response.

“Plants produce chemicals with structures we cannot possibly imagine,” Ciesla said.

While a post-doctoral researcher at the NIH, Ciesla worked on a method to fish out the active natural compounds from complex natural mixtures called cellular membrane affinity chromatography or CMAC. CMAC technology utilizes columns to identify the molecules in the natural samples that interact with important regulatory proteins, allowing researchers to also understand the interaction.

“This is our attempt to speed up the process to go from complex extract to what is actually responsible for the biological interaction,” he said. “To turn a natural compound into any form of treatment, you have to understand the effect through identifying the molecule and understanding the mechanism. This technique allows identification and characterization to help you figure out what is in that soup that causes the interaction.”

Preparation and use of these columns require specialized knowledge and skills, so Ciesla partnered with Regis Technologies to develop a kit that is ready to use out of the box that can be operated by many lab personnel.

“Regis Technologies has the ability to produce the kit and an existing customer base,” Ciesla said. “This will be easier than starting a company from scratch.”

This work was supported by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health of the National Institutes of Health under award number 1R41AT011716-01. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


Adam Jones, UA communications, 205-348-4328, adam.jones@ua.edu