Part 1 (of 3)

Dietary supplements. Natural remedies. Botanicals. Energy drinks. Wellness boosts. Health foods. Vitamins.

There’s a lot out there when choosing whether or not to use dietary supplements or other natural products. There are also many questions about the value of these products and how beneficial they are, or are not. They often tout claims such as “all natural” ingredients, but that doesn’t necessarily make them safe for you. Natural products are not required to go through the same rigorous research and clinical trial process that pharmaceuticals do prior to marketing, so many potential health dangers are simply unknown.

The wheat grass and bee pollen in your smoothie, the Echinacea in your natural cold remedy, and the licorice and catnip in your herbal tea all fall into the category of natural products, along with other herbs and plant-derived products (botanicals), vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.

What complicates the equation even more is the fact that many people turning to natural products for health benefits have also been prescribed at least one conventional medication by their health care providers. But research being led by Washington State University in Spokane is focused on uncovering potential interactions that may cause health risks.

Introducing Mary Paine, a pharmaceutical sciences researcher and associate professor at the WSU College of Pharmacy in Spokane. Paine is also a registered pharmacist. After practicing as a hospital pharmacist for a few years, she earned her Ph.D. from the University of Washington and undertook a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan Medical Center. She began and solidified her career in academia at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Several years later, she had the opportunity to return to her native Pacific Northwest, joining the WSU College of Pharmacy in 2013.

According to Paine, there needs to be more definitive information available to health care providers and patients about the risks of supplementing prescribed pharmacotherapeutic regimens with natural products. St. John’s wort is listed on her research group website as an example. St. John’s wort is a flowering plant that is used as an herbal remedy for mild to moderate depression, but has several known drug interactions including some post-organ transplant medications, causing them to be ineffective.

Adverse health effects could impact anyone looking to use natural products and conventional medications at the same time. According to the CDC, nearly half (48.9%) of the American population surveyed in 2016 had used at least one prescription drug in the past 30 days. With a U.S. population topping 323 million, that’s nearly 158 million prescriptions not accounting for the people who are taking multiple medications at once.

Originally a co-principal investigator, Paine was recently appointed as the sole principal investigator to lead a massive research initiative to develop a set of recommended approaches to determine the clinical relevance of pharmacokinetic interactions between natural products and conventional medications. This specialized center-cooperative agreement grant (U54), funded through the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, started in 2015.

The grant, totaling roughly $10 million over five years, funds the Center of Excellence for Natural Product-Drug Interaction Research (NaPDI Center). The center, composed of experts in clinical pharmacology, natural products chemistry, health informatics, and health communications, is intended to provide leadership in the rigorous study of interactions between natural products and conventional drugs.

Collaborating partners for the NaPDI Center include the WSU Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, University of Washington, University of North Carolina Greensboro, University of Pittsburgh, City of Hope, and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

The NaPDI Center will soon be providing a valuable resource for people across the nation who are just trying to do what they can to live their best, healthy life.

Part 2: the NaPDI Center