Abigail Klein Leichman
June 11, 2015, Updated October 25, 2017

Ingesting an indigenous Israeli aromatic shrub called Chiliadenus iphionoides (more commonly, “sharp varthemia” or “Goldilocks”) could improve insulin secretion and glucose absorption in people with diabetes, according to plant biologist Jonathan Gorelick, scientific director of the Judea Regional Research and Development Center in Israel.

The center’s efforts to isolate the plant’s active compounds — and to assure these compounds are present when the plant is grown in the greenhouse rather than in the wild — is the topic of Gorelick’s presentation today at the 25th Judea and Samaria Research Studies Conference at Ariel University.

“This is a plant that only grows in Israel, Jordan and the Sinai, and has been used traditionally by Bedouins for controlling diabetes,” Gorelick tells ISRAEL21c. “I’ve been screening different Israeli plants for diabetes and this is one of the best candidates.”

In a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in October 2011, Gorelick and his team describe how they tested the effects of the plant on a particular Negev rodent with a nutritionally induced model of diabetes. When the animals were given an oral glucose tolerance test, blood-glucose levels returned immediately to normal levels only in the ones that had been fed sharp varthemia before the test.

“We also did a longer-term study in which we mixed the plant with their food and showed the [positive] effects,” says Gorelick. Consumption of the yellow-flowering plant increased sugar absorption in the rodents’ muscle and fat cells, and reduced blood-sugar levels.

Gorelick and his research collaborators have identified one of the active compounds responsible for these effects, and continue to search for others. At the same time, they are experimenting to find the best way to grow the plant agriculturally with its active compounds intact so that it could be cultivated as a commercially available natural treatment for diabetes.

From the wild to the greenhouse

“Many medicinal plants, when grown in greenhouses, don’t produce the compounds they do in the wild because those compounds are a defense response to conditions in the wild,” he explains. “We’re trying to emulate those stimulators from the wild in the greenhouse setting.”

The nonprofit Judea Regional R&D Center is among eight agricultural research centers in Israel’s periphery regions. These centers are supervised and supported by the Israeli Ministry of Science and academically sponsored by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The Judea center focuses on industrial research and development of products, technologies, patents and inventions related to regional ecology, desertification, climate change, wastewater recycling, desert farming techniques, and indigenous plants for eating as well as medicinal, cosmetic, pest control, landscaping and other uses.

Two Judea Regional R&D Center PhDs and two research technicians are working on the Goldilocks project with collaborators from the Hebrew University Faculty of Nutrition in Rehovot for the animal studies, and with plant biologist Nurit Bernstein from the government’s Volcani Agricultural Research Organization on the greenhouse studies.

Los Angeles native Gorelick earned undergraduate and doctorate degrees in plant biology from Cornell University and Rutgers University, respectively, and did post-doc work in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s School of Pharmacy under Prof. Raphael Mechoulam,  a worldwide pioneer of research into medical cannabis.

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