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Spring conferences report

Jason Irving
30 May 2014
Blog team: 
The last few months have been very busy for the MPNS team, as we have launched the Beta release of our online portal, attended several conferences, and been involved in planning for Kew’s Plantasia festival.

We finally have time to start blogging again, and are beginning with a summary of three recent conferences we attended where we were able to explain the work we do to a very varied audience including health regulators, research scientists and anthropologists. It has been interesting to see how difficulties in understanding and using plant names exist across so many different disciplines. We have learned a lot about how we can help meet the needs of different communities at each of the events described below.

Photo 1 - Kew stand at BP conference.jpg

Photo of the Kew stand at the British Pharmacopoeia conference
The Kew stand at the British Pharmacopoeia conference

MHRA Quality of Medicines - Future Evolution Conference, April 2014

The first conference was held in the historic surroundings of Westminster in Central London, an appropriate setting as the event marked 150 years since publication of the first edition of the British Pharmacopoeia (BP) which brought together the London, Edinburgh and Dublin Pharmacopoeias in 1864. Pharmacopoeias provide the standard, legally binding, reference for medicinal substances and their constituents. Most countries in the world will have an official pharmacopoeia covering modern pharmaceutical and traditional medicines.

The day was organised by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the BP Commission, which are jointly responsible for the regulation and quality control of medicines in the UK, including herbal medicines.

In a talk by Dr Samantha Atkinson we learnt about the history of the development of the BP, how its scope, expertise and influence in setting standards for medicines grew over the years, not only in the UK but around the world. The BP originally contained 600 individual texts for medicines, most of which were derived from plant and animal material.

As a result the work of the BP often relied on the advice of Kew scientists, many of whom either worked at, or had links to, The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The connection between Kew and the BP has carried on to this day, with Kew currently providing a range of services to help develop the herbal monographs included in the Pharmacopoeia. Although the majority of the Pharmacopoeia now deals with chemically synthesised drugs, approximately 300 plants are included in the herbal monographs. These monographs specify morphological characteristics, chemical constituents (qualitative and quantitative) and quality control tests for herbal drugs.

Photo 2 - Kew staff at BP conference.jpg

Photo of the MPNS team
Members of the MPNS team (left to right) Jason Irving, Kristina Patmore, Bob Allkin, with Melanie Jayne-Howes from Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory

Kew's services for medicinal plants

MPNS collaborated with members of Kew’s Sustainable Uses Group (SUG), including the Chinese Medicinal Plants Authentication Centre (CMPAC) and Molecular Systematics Group, to present the work Kew does to assist the BP in the development of these monographs. This work includes identification and quality evaluation of plant starting materials and extracts, detection of herbal substitutes and adulterants as well as resolving confusion about plant names. Kew has extensive collections and a wide range of expertise in plant morphology, chemistry and DNA.

We spoke to delegates from health regulatory agencies, pharmaceutical research and the herbal trade who attended the conference. In discussions with delegates we learnt that many pharmacopoeias are increasing the number of plant product standards they contain, in line with increasing use of herbal medicines by the general public.

These medicines are sold under a great variety of different names, and health regulators we spoke to welcomed the prospect of a resource that collects the many common and pharmaceutical names that a plant can be known by as well as resolving questions of synonymy. We also discussed the services that MPNS offers to help support organisations working with medicinal plant names, from consultancies and training to web services and data validation.

A primary theme of the conference was harmonisation between different regulatory authorities, and MPNS is perfectly placed to ensure regulators and researchers are using the most up to date and accurate scientific names, as well as finding out what plant names other groups have been using.

PlantLIBRA in Vienna, 12-14 May, 2014 – a project to improve science-based decision making for plant food supplements

PlantLIBRA is an EU-funded project to bring together research into the risks and benefits of Plant Food Supplements (PFS), to help inform assessment of the effects they may have on the many people who take them. The conference in Vienna was the final meeting of the 4-year project and was a valuable opportunity for MPNS to explore the area of PFS and how it might complement our core focus on medicinal plants.

One of the main products of the PlantLIBRA project is a database (ePlantLIBRA) collating information on consumption, safety, active substances and contaminants of PFS. The database currently contains a thorough collation of references for the 57 most commonly used plants in PFS.

The work of PlantLIBRA has been supported by experts from a wide range of disciplines, from experimental chemistry and psychology to nutrition and agronomy, as well as PFS manufacturers, trade association representatives and legislators. Use of PFS is widespread in the EU: the PlantLIBRA consumer survey collected a list of 1,200 different ‘botanics’ (a count of individual products rather than plant species) that people reported taking from six EU member states.

Many of the plants that are used as food supplements are also used medicinally, and discussions with delegates brought up the same issues with using plant names that those working in the area of herbal medicines encounter. Many delegates had been using The Plant List to resolve their questions about taxonomy and nomenclature and were very interested to learn how Kew has been building on its work with The Plant List to develop the MPNS resource, where the taxonomy is regularly updated and non-scientific names are also included.

We made some interesting contacts and Liz Dauncey, our Business Development Officer, has already been invited to speak at the general assembly of the European Herb Growers Association in Latvia in July.

Photo 4 - Botanical Ontologies conference.jpg

Photo of Dr Elena Bulakh
Dr Elena Bulakh discusses cognitive principles of plant naming

Botanical Ontologies in Oxford, 20 May, 2014 – exploring plant knowledge

The most recent conference we attended was very different to the other two, as it explored philosophical questions of how knowledge about plants is formed, categorised and disseminated.

Organised by Oxford postgraduate students, the conference brought together anthropologists, archaeologists and ethnobotanists and covered very varied research in communities around the world.

Medicinal plants and plant names were mentioned in many of the talks, and Dr Elena Bulakh employed a comparative linguistic approach to explore ‘cognitive principles of plant naming’, discussing the different motivations people have for choosing folk plant names. All abstracts for the day are available on the botanical ontologies website (link below).

As many of the plant names in the MPNS resource are drawn from ethnobotanical surveys it was very useful to meet some of the people working in this field and learn about the issues they face in reconciling local systems of taxonomy and nomenclature with the standard scientific system.

This issue was seen not simply as a practical problem for ethnobotanists to overcome but highlighted wider questions of the values ascribed to different knowledge systems and what can be lost in privileging one system over another.

While standard scientific taxonomy and nomenclature deals specifically with evolutionary relationships, local taxonomies and names reflect a wide range of different needs and perceptions, from practical use and habitat to appearance and cultural significance.

Although the MPNS resource was designed primarily to provide clarity regarding which species a name can refer to - which is of use to ethnobotanists - interestingly it could also be used to further explore some of the issues above by providing quick access to comparisons of common names between communities and countries.

We look forward to seeing the different ways people use the recently released MPNS portal - please contact us if you have any feedback either via email ( or on our new twitter account (@MPNS_Kew).

Try the beta version of the MPNS portal

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