12 May 2015

Chaste Tree can knock out PMS


Researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences are targeting PMS – premenstrual syndrome. Postdoc Allison Maree Heskes has received a prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant from the EU, worth 1.4 million kroner, to work towards the development of a drug that can help relieve some symptoms of PMS.

There was a time when chaste tree seeds were used in convent kitchens to supress sexual desire. Now it has been proven that in larger doses, the substances in the plant can promote fertility, as well as reduce PMS related discomfort. 30% of all women experience discomfort so the discovery is of great significance for their quality of life.

Postdoc Allison Maree Heskes of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen has been awarded 1.4 million kroner from the EU to investigate how the tree produces these beneficial substances, and how they can be produced sustainably, and in large amounts so that they can be used in an anti-PMS drug.

“The interesting thing about this project is the amount of technology being deployed. We are using state-of-the-art mass spectrometry imaging, while at the same time using synthetic biology – still a new and fast-growing field – to develop new ways to produce the bioactivity chemicals we find in chaste tree,” explains Allison Maree Heskes.

Mass spectrometry imaging can be used to map the location of the chemicals of interest across different parts of the plant. It is possible, for example, to take a chasteberry fruit, slice it into thin sections, and analyse the chemical composition by firing a laser at  locations on the surface.

This causes substances from the targeted areas to be released from the tissue surface and these are then drawn directly into a mass spectrometer where they are analysed. By targeting different areas of the fruit, it is possible to map the location of these interesting substances with a high degree of spatial accuracy.

When it becomes clear how the chaste tree produce the bioactive substances, synthetic biology will be used to reconstruct the biosynthetic pathways in another organism. This can be done using yeast or other simple organisms to produce larger and more refined amounts of the bioactive substances. And this can then be used in the production of pharmaceuticals.

The bioactive substances in chasteberry are able to interact with dopamine receptors, which in turn influence how dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, is regulated. So besides treating PMS, Allison Maree Heskes’ research may also come to benefit the treatment of Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders in which the dopaminergic system is involved in the long run.