Twenty years after co-publishing a definitive paper on how certain plant-based acid compounds disrupted an HIV-enabling enzyme called Integrase, the healing ways of medicinal plants continues to fascinate Manfred Reinecke.
The emeritus professor of chemistry’s signature work, published in 1996 with Ed Robinson (now deceased), contributed to new therapies that turned HIV into a treatable condition instead of a death sentence. “It wasn’t a goal of mine specifically to find an effective treatment for AIDS,” Reinecke said. “I was looking very broadly at medicinal plants.”
Research funds came during some of the darkest days of the HIV crisis, said Reinecke. “We had three or four NIH [National Institutes of Health] grants going at the same time.”
Though the field has moved beyond HIV, there is plenty of research to do. “Cancer is always at the top of the list,” Reinecke said. “It’s full employment for medicinal chemists.”
For most of his academic career, Reinecke sought like-minded researchers who appreciated the healing properties of plant-based remedies that ancient peoples depended on around the globe.
One of those researchers was Joseph Bastien, professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, who was a priest in Bolivia. In the South American country, Bastien knew a community of Kallawaya herbalists who used and documented more than 900 effective plant remedies. (Bastien is one of the collaborators in Reinecke and Robinson’s classic paper.)
Two-thirds of Reinecke and Robinson’s published work is in the chemistry field, while the other third addressed findings about biologically active agents. “Before chemists came along, for centuries, a major source of medicine was plants,” Reinecke said. “It was trial and error. Then, for the past 100 years, people have gone into the plants to see what compounds cause the result.”
It’s not a matter of simply collecting plants in a field and then seeing what their compounds are and finding out later what they might influence, Reinecke said. “You don’t go out and pick them; you have some rationale for studying them.
“You can alter plant molecules to make them more effective, to eliminate the side effects,” he said. “Once the structure of the molecules is known, scientists can make the same compounds that are not naturally based.”
Reinecke was instrumental in helping the Fort Worth-based Botanical Research Institute of Texas become a reality in 1987. The facility has one of the world’s largest inventories of medicinal plant specimens, gleaned from other researchers and universities.
“The use of plants as medicines goes back hundreds, even thousands, of years,” Reinecke said. “They have been found to contain substances that are anti-cancer and that fight infectious diseases.”
Manfred Reinecke researches heterocyclic chemistry and natural products, especially bioactive compounds of medicinal plants. Aside from conducting independent research, Reinecke edits the scholarly journal Natural Product Communications.