World-first research from the University of Queensland hopes to cure cancer, solve obesity using ‘plant medicine’

Imagine if you could eat potato chips to lose weight or drink a drug-infused tea to treat cancer or relieve chronic pain.

Important points:

  • University of Queensland researchers traveled the world in search of rare plants to make natural medicines
  • There is hope that petunias, tomato and tobacco plants could be genetically modified to cure diseases
  • While animal testing has been successful, clinical trials are five years away

Imagine being able to consume cheaper, more environmentally friendly medicines through edible plants that have been genetically engineered to be “natural medicines” and grown in your own garden.

As far-fetched as it sounds, “herbal remedies” are the key to the world’s first research by a team of scientists from the University of Queensland (UQ) led by Professor David Craik.

The main goal of his 35-strong team of scientists was to address one of the world’s greatest health challenges – finding a way to make drugs safer and more effective than chemically made drugs.

“We are converting plants into super-efficient manufacturers of next-generation drugs,” said Professor Craik.

Her research has sparked worldwide interest and led to collaborations with the USA, Great Britain, China, Sweden and Austria.

When it comes to the fight against obesity, Professor Craik said he has proven that his team can create molecules that act on a receptor in the brain that affects appetite, controls cravings for food, and therefore can cause weight loss.

The UQ team hopes that one day chips could be used to suppress appetite. (

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“We have shown that our molecules are very strong – a thousand millionth of a gram is enough to stimulate this receptor to effectively turn it off so that our appetite would be suppressed,” he said.

“So we want to put this molecule in potatoes, for example, so that you can have your fries effectively and not have to worry about the consequences.”

Professor Craik said you would feel “full” after a few chips because your brain would tell you that you are no longer hungry.

Cone snail venom and chronic pain

He said the use of plants to relieve chronic pain also shows promise.

After discovering “mini-proteins”, Professor Craik examined the structures of many animal toxins, including conotoxins from cone snail venom.

“With pain, we actually discovered a molecule from a Queensland cone snail, a marine snail that injects venom into passing fish, and it turned out to be a very powerful pain reliever,” said Professor Craik.

“We have now developed this pain reliever to be incorporated into the native Australian tobacco plant so that we can essentially grow this pain reliever drug in that plant.

“The Queensland cone snail molecule is about 150 times stronger than morphine.

“And one of our goals is to incorporate this into plants, maybe an edible plant, so that people can have their pain reliever medicine as part of their diet.

“When you think of tobacco, you think of smoke and lung cancer, but we use these plants to make medicines with life-saving potential.”

Professor David Craik hopes that tobacco plants like these could be the key to curing diseases. (

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The team from the Institute for Molecular Biosciences at UQ also has its sights set on plant medicine – this time through genetic engineering of tomato plants to become a potential drug for the debilitating chronic disease multiple sclerosis (MS), which affects the central nervous system.

“One of the cyclic peptides [mini proteins] We are working on going into clinical trials in Sweden this year as a potential treatment for the disease, “said Professor Craik.

“So we figured it wouldn’t be nice if people could have a salad with those special tomatoes in it and relieve some of the symptoms of their MS at the same time.”

“The laboratory rat of the plant world”

Professor Craik’s lab has also treated sunflower and soybean plants with cancer drugs while injecting other pain reliever drugs a common, fast-growing weed in the cabbage family called Arabidopsis thaliana.

“It’s something like the laboratory rat of the plant world,” he said.

“It can be flipped very quickly, so we use that for all of our model experiments to see if we can put genes in drugs into this plant first.

“If we can do that, we can go to bigger plants with confidence; crops like tobacco. We also use petunias and even peanuts.”

The research is complex, and began with a lightbulb moment for Professor Craik when he was studying how women in the Congo drank tea to help relieve pain during childbirth in the 1970s.

A young scientist injecting a plant and smiling. A team of researchers injects a bacterium into each leaf of different plants.

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“We found that the active ingredient in an African medicine was actually a peptide with a strange and circular structure that made it stable,” he said.

“The women in Africa made a tea out of this plant that contained a peptide [by] make the tea and take it.

“The fact that a peptide could survive cooking and ingestion was a real eye opener as most peptides can’t.”

Inject plants one leaf at a time

Professor Craik said his team traveled the world looking for plants that contain active molecules that will be brought back to the laboratory and tested.

While walking through the laboratory, molecular biologists are seen injecting between 20 or 30 plants bacteria engineered to encode the peptides.

Scientist Max Harding injected a tobacco plant, one infection per leaf, before bringing the plant back into the greenhouse to “regrow” as a “plant drug”.

“We know how well nature makes these molecules naturally. What if we can turn them into cancer drugs, anti-obesity drugs, or pain relievers?” said Mr. Harding.

A man peering through some shelves of science equipment. Mr. Harding uses tobacco plants to grow a powerful pain reliever. (

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“Why not use plants as bio-factories and produce them in large quantities, then we can manufacture next-generation pharmaceuticals without using toxic chemicals in the production process.”

He said herbal medicines would be more accessible.

“Instead of using expensive chemical plants and complicated transportation chains to make and distribute drugs, we could have facilities that make those drugs,” Harding said.

“All you need is some sunlight, some water and some land, and we can make sustainable medicines that are safer and hopefully cheaper for patients, more accessible.”

While the molecules they were working on were successful in animal studies, clinical trials were at least five years away.

Dr.  Annie Kan from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland in the laboratory Dr. Annie Kan of the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience. (

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Dr. Annie Kan, who has a PhD in medicinal chemistry and is also part of Professor Craik’s research team, said she hoped her research had the potential to revolutionize medicine, especially in developing countries where more affordable drugs are needed.

“Since plants have already learned to build the structures for millions of years, we tweak them a little, put them back in the plant, then they essentially become a laboratory,” said Dr. Kan.

“To think that maybe one day our research can help people lead better lives that inspires me.

“So instead of going to a hospital and having your medication injected, we hope that, for example, you can eat sunflower seeds, make tea, or eat converted potatoes to cure the disease.”

A possible alternative to opioid drugs

Carol Bennett, CEO of Pain Australia, said with 3.4 million Australians experiencing chronic pain, she can’t wait to hear the results of subsequent clinical trials.

“Opioid drugs have been the main pillar of pain management for some time, and as addiction and harm have increased, their use to treat chronic pain has been limited,” she said.

“Natural treatments that show promise for treating pain in its earliest stages before it turns into chronic pain need funding and support.

“Professor Craik’s research shows promise for people with chronic pain and we would like to see more results from his research.”

Carol Bennett Carol Bennett of Pain Australia says the number of Australians living with chronic pain is growing.

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Nutritionist Kate DiPrima said it was an exciting time when science and nature came together to create healing foods.

“We all know turmeric [anti-inflammatory] and ginger [anti-nausea] work, but modifying a protein so that it safely works on brain receptors to suppress the urge to overeat has to be a good thing, “she said.

“I don’t think you can eat what you want – it will only help stop the overeating that I see all the time in my patients.

“Also, many of the drugs available have side effects like nervousness and sleepless nights – and the surgical removal of part of the stomach – are all very extreme.”

What do pharmaceutical companies think?

The team said drug companies had surprisingly expressed an interest in “biopill” research.

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“A lot of people would tell me that the drug industry is going to hate me because we’re taking the industry away from them,” said Professor Craik.

“But they actually like it because they can make some of these peptide-based drugs cheaply.

“They want to bring products to market as cheaply as possible.”