Dr. Cassandra Quave is a world-renowned ethnobotanist whose work connects the health of humankind with the natural world around it.
“Ethnobotany is the scientific study of the relationships that exist between people and plants,” Dr. Quave told Tafties during a recent virtual visit to Taft. “It is often referred to as the science of survival: If you are to exist in any environment you have to have knowledge of how to use the resources in it.”
More than 30,000 global plant species are currently recorded as being of medicinal use; many fill the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines.
“While we may look at these on our medicine shelves and think they are all synthetic drugs, in fact many have a shared origin in being originally discovered in plants,” Dr. Quave notes. “And in many cases, were also discovered in plants that have a history a traditional medical use.”
Those drugs often define treatment protocols for a wide range of medical conditions, from cancer and heart disease to pain and infection. It is the latter that lies at the heart of Dr. Quave’s work. She and her team of chemists, microbiologists, pharmacologists, and botanists at Atlanta’s Emory University are working hard to resolve what she refers to as “one of mankind’s greatest challenges”—antibiotic resistance.
CDC data shows that more than 35,000 people in the U.S. lost their lives to antibiotic-resistant infections in 2019; in 2016, the worldwide number exceeded 700,000. Without new interventions, that number will only continue to rise. Having mined all the “low hanging fruit” in the second half of the twentieth century, Dr. Quave says, we are in a period of “antibiotic discovery void.” That is, there have been no new registered classes of antibiotics since 1984.
To bridge that gap, advance antibiotic discovery, and wage war on antibiotic-resistant pathogens, Dr. Quave and her team traverse the globe in search of plants that may yield new antibiotics, antibiotic re-sensitizing adjuvants, and anti-virulence therapies. In the field, Dr. Quave’s work is driven by a commitment to fair and equitable exchange, and equitable engagement with the communities she enters.
“Billions of people are reliant today on wild plants that they find in their environment for their most fundamental forms of medicine,” says Quave. “70 to 95% of people living in most developing countries rely on plants for medicine, but habitat loss, overharvesting, and climate change threaten access to medicinal plants for health. The entry of plants into global trade, not only puts those plants at risk, but also the health of people who rely on them.”
Stringent permitting processes, prior informed consent, a strict code of ethics, protocols for access and benefit-sharing, and collaborative research agreements help protect those communities from “biopiracy,” Quave says.
When the pandemic complicated travel, Dr. Quave and her team turned their focus to mining years worth of research and data compiled by scientists across the globe to help narrow the list of 30,000 known-medicinal plants to a list of those holding true antibiotic potential. Rigorous work and standards resulted in a review of 958 potentially viable plant species. The team found antibiotic activity in plant extracts from 51 of 79 vascular plant orders. They shared their research in a database accessible to chemists and microbiologists for use in their own search for new antibiotics.
On a more personal level, Dr. Quave also inspired Taft students with her own story.
“One thing you don’t know about me because I’m not standing in front of you is that I am not only a mom and a woman scientist, I’m also a disabled scientist—I have an artificial leg, making fieldwork challenging. The message here is that whatever the challenges, with careful planning and passion for your work, you can make things happen.”
Dr. Cassandra Quave is Curator of the Herbarium at Emory University, Atlanta, GA, and an Associate Professor of Dermatology and Human Health. She is a medical ethnobotanist focusing on documentation and biochemical analysis of plants used in traditional medicine. Her research group studies the botanical ingredients used in traditional medicines to fight infection and disease in order to discover new solutions for antibiotic resistance. Dr. Quave has authored more than 100 scientific publications, edited two books, and been granted seven patents. She is the host of the podcast Foodie Pharmacology that examines the link between food and medicine. She has been featured in numerous publications including New York Times Magazine, BBC Focus, National Geographic Magazine, Brigitte Magazin, NPR, PBS, and the National Geographic Channel. This year her book The Plant Hunter: A Scientists’ Quest for Nature’s Next Medicine will be released.
Dr. Quave’s visit to Taft was made possible by support from the Taft School Science Department.