URI research taps into maple tree’s medicinal benefits

Private funding helps researchers unlock the tree’s potential

Pharmacy Professor Navindra Seeram
Navindra Seeram

While the maple tree is known for delicious syrup, researchers at URI have discovered that maple trees provide much more than a way to make breakfast taste better. In its branches, leaves, and sap, maple species, including Rhode Island’s state tree, the red maple, may be the key to regulating blood glucose levels in humans. Thanks to $110,000 in funding from Verdure Sciences, this important research will continue.

At the Bioactive Botanical Laboratory at the URI College of Pharmacy, researchers have been gathering mounting data that identifies dozens of beneficial compounds from the maple tree as having healing and medicinal properties. These maples have biochemical substances in their leaves, bark, and sap that may counteract inflammation, the root of many of the diseases. By regulating blood glucose levels, the maple tree may help people who have diabetes or are pre-diabetic. There are also indications of beneficial effects of maple compounds on Alzheimer’s, possibly by counteracting neuroinflammation.

“We did research looking at the whole tree since we learned that Native Americans weren’t just using the sap,” said URI Associate Professor of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences Navindra Seeram, who leads the lab. “They used the bark, boiled it and drank it as a liver tonic.”

Seeram and his team, which includes research associate Hang Ma, studies the maple tree sap and syrup, summer and fallen leaves, and the bark from fallen twigs. They’re amassing data on the tree’s health properties and are applying it to their diabetes research. The lab’s work interests Ajay Patel of Verdure Sciences, Inc., a supplier of plant-based ingredients with an emphasis on traceability, sustainability, and health benefits backed with clinical support.

Patel and Seeram met when Seeram was working at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he patented a pomegranate extract. Verdure Sciences licensed the patent from the university and created the ingredient Pomella, a natural pomegranate extract that is one of its best-selling ingredients.

“Lots of products and ingredients out there are not well researched and simply don’t work,” said Patel. This issue led him to develop relationships with universities that have cutting-edge science and research operations. “How we do it is different from other folks out there—from packaging to controlled manufacturing of these ingredients. Quality and purity with the addition of sound science is essential.”

URI partnerships with companies like Verdure Sciences are more than mutually beneficial. The funds support the lab and advance critical work at a time when government funding is challenging to obtain. The research provides URI students with unique opportunities and showcases the commitment to applied pharmaceutical sciences at the University.

As an agricultural crop, the red maple provides sustainable growth for farmers who could utilize the twigs and leaves in addition to the sap. Seeram views a sustainable approach as benefiting not just the state but also the regional economy, which is important to Verdure Sciences and its expanding botanicals business, according to vice president of marketing and innovation Sonya Cropper.

“Sustainability is an important factor and consumers drive that,” she said. “We all know how much our natural resources mean and how much we are trying to make everything sustainable. That is where consumerism is going.”

Seeram’s maple research was recently featured in National Geographic.