MTSU representatives present findings on benefits of botanical research, host tour for Tennessee legislators


Photo by Caleb Revill / MTSU Sidelines

MTSU representatives presented findings on the benefits of botanical research and hosted a tour for legislators at the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research in the MTSU Science Building on Monday.

Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Beth Harwell and Speaker Pro Tempore Curtis Johnson attended the event, along with several members of the Middle Tennessee local delegation and General Assembly.

MTSU President Sidney McPhee welcomed all of the attendees.

“I think it’s only fitting that we have this gathering in this building today,” McPhee said. “Many of you will remember that our university spent a great deal of time a few years ago making the case for this Science Building to educate our citizens … I want to be a broken record in saying thank you to the speaker and her colleagues. Because, without them, this facility and, in fact, what we’re going to be talking about today would not have been possible.”

McPhee proceeded to thank the legislators in attendance for their “vision, dedication and commitment” to higher education and to MTSU.

“In the 106 years of this institution, we have the highest academic qualification of incoming freshman class in the history of the university,” McPhee said. “We attract and continue to attract the best and brightest.”

McPhee said that MTSU has seen the number of students interested in majoring in science “increase significantly,” which is something that McPhee attributes in part to the creation of the new Science Building.

McPhee went on to talk about the “exclusive relationship” that MTSU has developed with “the largest botanical garden in the world,” the Guangxi Botanical Garden in Nanning, China.

“It took us a while to get here,” McPhee said. “I’ve been traveling to China now for about 19 years, even prior to becoming president of Middle Tennessee State University. And, if you know anything about the Asian culture … to develop that relationship and that partnership, it’s a personal (relationship).”

McPhee said that the development of the collaboration started in 2011, when one of the former governors of one of the largest provinces in China was visiting in the United States. McPhee convinced the Chinese governor to visit Tennessee for a day to meet with Gov. Bill Haslam.

McPhee described the outcome of the meeting as MTSU receiving an “exclusive relationship with the Guangxi Botanical Garden.”

“I can’t tell you the number of inquiries and requests that I’ve gotten from major universities, both in the state and outside of the state, to get a piece of the action,” McPhee said. “It’s here. It’s in your state at your local university, and it allows us to attract some of the best and brightest faculty and, certainly, researchers.”

McPhee said that research can be conducted on new drug and treatment possibilities for cancer by studying plants like hemp and ginseng, a plant grown in Tennessee that is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine.

“I’m pleased to announce today that this university is beginning and will engage within the next month or so in a new initiative with the Guangxi Botanical Garden in developing an institute on the demonstration of ginseng,” McPhee said.

McPhee explained that MTSU was asked to partner with the Guangxi Botanical Garden in its ginseng research initiative, which was funded with “over one billion dollars” by the Chinese government while McPhee was on a trip to Beijing in December 2017.

“That would not have been possible without the research that we have going on here and also the facility,” McPhee said. “We’re seeing some of the results and the fruits that (are) going to pay off for years to come.”

McPhee then introduced Harwell to speak. She expressed her gratitude for the research that is being done at MTSU.

“When you think of Middle Tennessee worldwide, Middle Tennessee is kind of seen as the ‘health service of America,’” Harwell said. “This is where we do a tremendous amount when it comes to healthcare. This should also be where we do the ‘health research for America,’ and I think MTSU can lead the nation in that.”

Harwell said that she thought Tennesseans “deserve alternatives when it comes to pain management,” alluding to some of the treatments that researching plants like hemp could provide.

“I think we are on the cutting edge right here at MTSU for offering Tennesseans something that they want, and quite frankly, they deserve,” Harwell said.

Dean of MTSU’s College of Basic and Applied Sciences Bud Fischer spoke next about what the college is providing for research. He explained that the College of Basic and Applied Sciences covers a broad range of subjects from biology and chemistry to the “applied side” subjects, like aerospace and agriculture.

“5,200 students are in this college,” Fischer said. “It’s the largest college on campus. Right now, it graduates somewhere around 850 STEM graduates a year, which makes it really where employers come to find people for Middle Tennessee.”

Fischer explained that the college has seen “a doubling of research funding.”

“We’ve gone from about $10 million in 2012 to $19 and a half million in what would be 2017,” Fischer said. “What’s really driven that increase is this building (and) the ability to put scientists, that is faculty, in facilities that were ready and had all that you needed.”

Fischer said that one of the areas of research that has “really grown” was the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research.

“The primary goal for this center is to develop new drugs, pharmaceuticals, as well as nutritional supplements, nutraceuticals, from medicinal plants,” Fischer said.

Fischer went on to explain that through the program being interdisciplinary, with multiple groups of people working together to solve a problem, it was more successful.

Fischer then introduced Iris Gao, the TCBMR lead researcher at MTSU. She also discussed the relationship between the Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants and MTSU.

“The partnership has been progressing and yielding great benefits on many levels,” Gao said. “GBGMP was recognized as a demonstration base of international science and technology cooperation by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology. Just four months ago, they were awarded the 2 billion RMB for medicinal plant research.”

Gao then displayed some research publications and patents that were produced through collaborative research between GBGMP and MTSU.

“In addition, along with the exclusive partnership with GBGMP, MTSU has joined investments and partnership from the industry, such as Greenway Nutraceuticals,” Gao said. “GBGMP is willing to further the relationship with MTSU, and we are currently in the discussions of how to expand our partnerships in the next few years.”

Next to speak was MTSU Biology Professor Elliot Altman, who works in the TCBMR. Altman has researched the benefits of hemp for medicinal and agricultural uses.

Altman tried to clear up any possible misconceptions about the hemp that was the subject of his research.

“The problem is, both hemp and marijuana are the same plant,” Altman said. “The legal difference is, if you’re less than 0.3 percent THC, you’re hemp. If you’re more than 0.3 percent THC, you’re marijuana.”

THC is a chemical compound found in hemp that can cause psychoactive effects. Recreational marijuana, in comparison to marijuana studied at the TCBMR, contains high amounts of THC, which gives hemp the ability to get someone high.

Altman said that his interest and research was in the “non-psychotropic cannabinoids,” or, in other words, drugs that don’t affect one’s mind, emotions or behavior.

“Hemp seeds (are) actually a superfood,” Altman said. “It brings a great source of omega-3 (and) omega-6 fatty acids that are balanced (and) are exactly what the nutritionists want at a complete protein diet of all the amino acids.”

Altman mentioned that this makes hemp a great food for livestock.

“Dr. McPhee has always stressed the importance of commercialization,” Altman said. “It’s one thing to do research, but let’s develop some products that can help mankind (and) that can bring some money to the university.”

Altman explained that better hemp extracts are being developed for the non-psychotropic cannabinoid market.

With the word “initiative” already appearing in the name of the “MTSU Ginseng Initiative,” Altman simply referred to his research group as “Team Hemp.”

“We have biologists and (agriculture) people who know how to grow it, (and) we have chemists who know how to purify and quantitate the ingredients that are necessary, (including) the cannabinoids people are interested in,” Altman said.

Altman said that Team Hemp also has biologists that can check and see if the products actually work.

“One of the mistakes a lot of these companies make is that they can sell these products with no guarantee whatsoever that they can do anything for you, and we wanted to be different in that respect,” Altman said.

Altman thanked the legislators for their assistance in the research. He said that he believed that “Tennessee is quickly becoming one of the states to be reckoned with” that is doing “state of the art hemp research.”

“Currently, new legislation will (allow Tennesseans) to be able to use hemp as livestock feed,” Altman said. “We keep moving that bar, and now we’re seeing other states try to catch up with it.”

At the end of the presentation, legislators were given a tour of the many research areas and labs in the Science Building.

For more information on the TCBMR, visit here.

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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