Taken from ASBMB’s monthly research newsletter: The Monthly Digest (Nov. 2020, Issue 1).
Dr. Cassandra Quave is an ethnobotanic research and Associate Professor in Emory’s School of Medicine for the Department of Dermatology. Dr. Quava received her B.S. in Biology and B.S. in Anthropology and Human Biology from Emory University in 2000. After taking a few gap years to pursue field research in Italy, she received her PhD in Biology (with a focus on ethnobotany and natural products research) at Florida International University’s Center for Ethnobiology and Natural Products. At Emory now, her lab focuses on the ethnobotanical approach to drug discovery for improving human health.
Writer Priscilla Cho video chatted with Dr. Quave to hear about her research and path to becoming an Associate Professor.
Q: How did you decide on ethnobotany as your current field of study?
A: Ethnobotany is an interesting field because you can bring together areas of interests and expertise from many different disciplines. I decided to double major in anthropology and biology because I loved both subjects. I was a pre-med student, so I took chemistry courses too. My approach to ethnobotany has been more rounded on the chemistry, biology, and ecology of plants and also the anthropology of how people interact with nature. One unifying factor about the field is that it’s all about people who share interests in how different cultures and different people relate to plants for their daily survival but also for specific purposes ranging from food to medicine. I also had a great opportunity during the summer between my junior and senior year of college to go to the Amazon and work at a research camp. There, I was able to study with a local healer, and learning from him made me appreciate how the pharmacy was in the living beings of the forest. I was able to really understand the impact of losing this knowledge of using forest resources for medicine as the communities lost many of their traditional healers after going to a more westernized way of living. I got really curious about understanding the history of medicine, how we acquired some of the drugs we have today, and about how can we come up with new medicines based on this knowledge before it’s lost.
Q: What factors did you consider when you decided to work with Emory’s School of Medicine as an Associate professor for the Department of Dermatology?
A: For my graduate work, I focused on documenting plants used to treat skin disease in the Mediterranean. I was really interested in how people used plants to treat both inflammatory and infectious skin disease and in digging int the chemistry of these plants to see if they act through specific processes. I had an introduction to the dermatology department here at Emory when I was wrapping up my postdocs. They were looking for research scientists to join the department, and I felt like it was a good match. I really enjoy being in a clinical department because I have the opportunity to speak with clinicians and to have that translation of understanding what are the major challenges faced by people in the clinic with skin disease, especially around acne, atopic dermatitis or eczema, and skin infections. I am working to take this understanding and trying to apply it to dive deeper into how these traditional remedies can be used to address those problems.
Q: Could you elaborate more on the patented anti-biofilm technology that PHYTOTEK LLC, the company you helped cofound, is working to commercialize?
A: The technology is based off the blackberry root extract known by the extract number of 220DF2. The extract is a mixture of lactic acid glycosides that work by blocking the ways that staph bacteria form a biofilm. This was based on work I did when I was at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences for my first postdoc in microbiology. The patent covers the use of this blackberry extract to treat biofilm-associated infection, and we licensed it back to a company I formed. I had originally planned on going into the company after my postdoc, but even when we were successful in winning some business plan competitions, we hadn’t been as successful as we had hoped in raising funding to get the company off the ground. So I came to Emory for my other postdoc. Currently the company is
still going, and we have entered into a sublicensing agreement with another company based on Boston that innovates different types of bandages. We have a medicated bandage that involves this anti-biofilm technology that we are seeking medical device approval for, with the idea that this could be used to help treat patients or to manage the wound care for patients with chronic non-healing wounds and ulcers.
Q: Which research project do you feel is presenting the most challenges currently?
A: We have three major projects that are funded right now. We have one that is on herbal safety where we are looking at evaluating plant ingredients for potential herb drug interactions against different cytochrome Q450 enzymes, the drug metabolizing enzymes. This project is not so challenging because the work is pretty straightforward. Our other work is at looking at Hopps terpenes to mitigate pain. That one is more complex because there is not a really good in vitro assay. We have to do things through animals with research partners. The other project is our work on looking for new therapies for COVID-19. That has probably been our biggest challenge logistically speaking just to obtain an assay up and running. To work with the live virus, SARS CoV-2, you need a Biosafety Level 3 lab, and there are very few of those in the country. It is also difficult to work with, and so we need to find a level 2 safety model, which we were able to do at a very expensive cost. Our challenge was to acquire the model and also to raise money to start screening, but we were fortunately able to do that. Now we are actively looking at our plant extract library for inhibitors of the virus.
Q: What motivates you most as a researcher?
A: I think what motivates me most is really just curiosity. I think to be a good researcher you need to be curious about the world and always be thinking about questions. I think a good researcher takes time to look at phenomena and think critically and creatively about what things could mean.
Q: Do you have any words of advice for undergraduate students?
A: Use your time wisely while you’re in school to pick up core knowledge but also think about ways to expand your knowledge and understanding by engaging in creative outlets. I would also like to encourage students to read, whether the topic is popular science, biographies, or the history of science. I think there is lot to be learned in the history of science that could be very useful as we forge into future.
Q: What is your favorite plant and why?
A: It’s hard to say because I love so many plants. One of the plants that has my attention right now is American beautyberry, or Callicarpa americana. It has my interest right now because we were able to isolate a compound from it that restores the way that antibiotics work or certain antibiotics work in drug-resistant infections. It’s a plant with a long history of use in traditional medicine among Native American peoples, and it also has beautiful purple fruits that can be consumed as a jelly. It’s a multi-use plant, and you can use it to repel mosquitos due to the bug repellant properties of its leaves. It’s a really neat plant, and I want to say that it’s my plant of the year because I am fascinated with it right now.
Thank you Dr. Quave for sharing insight on your path as a researcher!