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Under the microscope

Prof. Dr. Florian Stintzing is a member of the management board at WALA as well as Head of Science. In addition, he teaches as an Associate Professor at the University of Hohenheim.

Professor Stintzing, you are a researcher and a member of the management board at WALA Heilmittel GmbH. In addition to your role as Head of Science at WALA, you also teach as an Associate Professor at the University of Hohenheim. You completed your habilitation and now have more than 130 publications in scientific journals and books. What is it about research that inspires you so much?

Prof. Dr. Florian Stintzing:

My team and I are particularly fascinated by plants – the composition and effects of their constituents and their potential benefits for human health: caring, strengthening, activating of healing processes. We are breaking new scientific ground in this area. We study the plant as a whole – i.e. a so-called “multi-component mixture”. This allows us to leverage the unknown and untapped potential of local plants that have unjustifiably slipped out of the focus of research.

What exactly is the research of “multi-component mixtures”?

Florian Stintzing:

In our studies, we distinguish between particular parts of the plant, take growth conditions and harvest times into consideration, and examine the influence of different processing steps on the specific chemical composition. When analysing multi-component mixtures, for example in the form of fermented aqueous plant extracts, we discover new chemical compounds even in well-known medicinal plants that have already been the subject of much research. In this way, we discover potential effects that were previously unknown. This demonstrates that a total extract can produce an effect that goes beyond that of the individual substances, and that taking a narrow view of just one or two characteristic compounds is not sufficient. Research that focuses on multi-component mixtures has proved fruitful and holds great potential for generating new, helpful knowledge for use in medicine and other fields of application.

To what extent is research into multi-component mixtures new?

Florian Stintzing:

In recent decades, medical research has typically concentrated on the analysis of individual plant substances (mono-constituent substances) and their effectiveness. If these substances prove to have a beneficial effect, then the next step often involves investigating the possibilities of synthetic, industrial reproduction or producing isolates from high-yield plant sources. These are tried-and-tested methods in modern-day medicine. However, this sort of focused or reductionist view has systematically lost sight of other approaches. For good reasons, integrative medicine is increasingly resorting (back) to natural medicines as multi-component mixtures. We can answer any questions that arise from this process more comprehensively today with scientific studies, modern analytical methods and laboratory technology or in clinical studies. Of course, we are not starting from scratch. Our approach ties in with classical pharmacognosy, which is the study of biogenic – i.e. plant-based or animal-based – crude drugs, medicines and toxic agents. Our specific approach takes into account the frequently forgotten associated matrices – i.e. the plant substances that are not considered from a mono-substance perspective. These may be substances that improve the solubility or stability of the main active ingredients, for example.

Can you give us some specific examples of the benefits of this research?

Florian Stintzing:

Non-bacterial middle ear infections (otitis media) are particularly common among children and can be very painful. Knowledge gained from herbal medicine suggested that lovage (Levisticum officinale) be tested for its effectiveness in treating this infection. Here, we were able to scientifically demonstrate for the first time that both the extract agent olive oil and the fat-soluble plant constituents of this traditional medicinal plant do indeed provide effective treatment for otitis media. They relieve the pain and reduce the actual inflammation of the middle ear, as long as it is non-bacterial in nature. And this is usually the case (Beckmann et al. [2017], Zeitschrift für Phytotherapie 38, 65-71).
Another example demonstrates the benefits of tannins, in this case oak bark (Quercus cortex), in the treatment of allergies. Oak bark is also well-known as a traditional herbal remedy. But we lacked any scientific evidence of how exactly it worked. To test its effectiveness, we separated the extract in the laboratory into high-molecular and a low-molecular weight fractions (Lorenz et al. [2016], Journal of Ethnopharmacology 194, 642-650). In a preclinical trial, these fractions and the so-called decoction were tested for activity in the early (release of histamine, mostly local) and late (release of messenger substance, systemic) phases of an allergic reaction. This demonstrated which analytical tests are required to ensure the effectiveness of this extract. The results also provide a good platform for the validation of existing preparations and the development of future preparations containing this extract. Interestingly, the proven effectiveness of the extract is comparable to that of a classic antihistamine (early-phase) or glucocorticoid (late-phase).

You work in larger teams and publish predominantly in international journals. Why is that, exactly?

Florian Stintzing:

The common, public learning process is of utmost importance in scientific research. When research results are published, they should be able to be accessed and used by everyone. In addition to the fact of being published, a crucial aspect of publication for us and all researchers is that it integrates us into a peer review system. This is what characterises science today more than ever. It is about transparency, compliance with strict methodological rules, and the independent assessment of the scientific value of the research results that are subjected to the review. This form of dialogue and justification of results and methods offers a very valuable learning process. Colleagues from other universities are involved in our studies from the outset. In addition to Hohenheim, these include the universities of Freiburg, Tübingen, Greifswald and Regensburg. Cooperations such as these are particularly effective, as they enable us to consider different perspectives.

Thank you very much for your time.