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NCCIH Research Blog

Innovative Approaches for Establishing Biological Signatures of Natural Products

June 14, 2016

D. Craig Hopp, Ph.D.

D. Craig Hopp, Ph.D.

Deputy Director

Division of Extramural Research

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

View biographical sketch

When you take an herbal dietary supplement—or any natural product—you're consuming a complex mixture of substances. In your body, the complexity is magnified by interactions with a wide variety of metabolic pathways, including those associated with your microbiome. Beyond that, another layer of complexity is added by the ways your individual health and genetics may affect the natural product's activity.

How can researchers study something so complex? Not by using traditional methods. Learning about the biological signatures of complex natural products requires innovative approaches and tools that go beyond the traditional ones that focused on a single molecule and a single target.

Moving research forward in this area by using multidisciplinary, high-impact approaches is one of the top scientific priorities featured in our Center's new 2016 Strategic Plan: Exploring the Science of Complementary and Integrative Health.

Our goals in this area include:

  • Establishing a state-of-the-art data repository of the chemical and biological signatures of natural products as a resource to aid researchers
  • Developing new and innovative technologies to better understand the effects of natural products on the human biome
  • Developing bioinformatics technologies to better predict potential harmful effects of herbs, probiotics, and other natural products
  • Identifying and developing novel bioassays to evaluate natural products for their potential beneficial effects on pain and on symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Reaching these goals will not be easy. But with innovative approaches such as network pharmacology—a method that seeks to define the web of biologic targets for bioactive substances—it should be possible to enhance our understanding of complex natural products and their effects in the body, including in the microbiome.

Please visit our new strategic plan to find out more about this scientific priority area and about our strategies to advance understanding of the basic biological mechanisms of action of natural products. And please give us your reactions to this post in the comments section below.


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