BUFFALO, N.Y. – University at Buffalo undergraduate
students will travel to northern Peru next summer to conduct
rigorous interdisciplinary research into the biological and
chemical properties of indigenous medicinal plants and study ways
in which the plants are employed by the curanderos— the
region’s native healers — as well as the cultural
meanings attached to these practices.
This collaborative effort involving anthropologists, natural
products chemists, ethnobotanists and physicians in the U.S. and
Peru is funded by an undergraduate Minority Health International
Research Training (MHIRT) grant from the National Institutes of
Health to San Diego State University (SDSU).
MHIRT involvement in Peru began 11 years ago through the
collaboration of ethnobotanist Rainer Bussman, director of the
William L. Brown Center for Plant Genetic Resources, Missouri
Botanical Garden, and Douglas Sharon, now an adjunct professor of
anthropology at UB and at SDSU.
Gail Willsky, associate professor of biochemistry in the UB
School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, became involved three
years ago when microbiology and chemistry laboratory work became a
more important part of the project. Her students previously have
participated in that aspect of the research.
This year’s research will consist of two interrelated
studies in anthropology and laboratory analysis co-directed by
Willsky and Sharon.
Ana Mariella Bacigalupo, associate professor in the UB
Department of Anthropology, will coordinate the anthropology
portion of the project at UB.
Willsky, a biochemist whose research areas include the
anti-diabetic properties of metal-containing compounds, says she
will work with students “to conduct research into the
anti-bacterial properties and toxicology of extracts of medicinal
plant and plant mixtures used by Peruvian healers to treat
infectious diseases. They also will learn to identify and collect
plants and to prepare extracts for analysis.”
These “wet bench” laboratory studies — so
called because the chemistry generally is conducted in the liquid
phase at the lab bench — will take place in the Faculty of
Chemical Engineering at the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo in
John Crane, an expert in infectious diseases and associate
professor in the Department of Medicine in the UB medical school,
will serve as a consultant to the project.
The anthropological side of the project will be led by Sharon,
whose work includes extensive research into curanderism and
medicinal plant use on the northern coast of Peru. He is the author
of “The Wizard of the Four Winds: A Shaman’s
Story,” about the mestizo curanderism of the late Eduardo
Calderon (Sharon now works with Calderon’s daughter, Julia,
also a curandero) and “Shamanism and the Sacred
Cactus,” a study of the use of the hallucinogenic San Pedro
cactus by Peruvian shamans.
Bacigalupo, who will coordinate the anthropology project at UB,
has for decades investigated and published on indigenous shamanic
healing practices among the Mapuche people of Chile. She is the
author of “The Voice of the Drum in Modernity: Tradition and
Change in the Healing Therapies of Seven Mapuche Shamans”and
“Shamans of the Foye Tree: Gender, Power and Healing among
“The project’s anthropology research,” she
says, “will address several areas: the cultural meanings and
curanderos’ uses of medicinal herbs and herbal mixtures; the
collaboration between practitioners of modern medicine and the
curanderos in the fields of phytotherapy, ethnobotany, pharmacy and
psychology; patients’ health care–seeking behaviors and
how they navigate traditional versus biomedical health care
systems; and the impact of traditional medicine and ethnobotany on
the improvement of health care in Trujillo.”
This work, says Bacigalupo, will be conducted at the homes of
curanderos and at the Centro de Atención en Medicina
Complementaria (CAMEC)-EsSalud in Trujillo, a center for
complementary medicine, as well as at the highland gardens of
medicinal herbs in Huamachuco, on the Andean cordillera.
Additional direction will be provided by medical anthropologist
Linda Kahn, research associate professor and National Research
Service Award fellow in the Department of Family Medicine in the UB
Sharon’s previous ethnobotanical and anthropological
studies with Rainer Bussmann, director of the William L. Brown
Center, Missouri Botanical Garden, have characterized the
pharmacopia of the curanderos in this region and examined some of
the ways in which traditional and biochemical treatments are
understood and sought by patients.
In 2010, they reported in the Journal of Ethnobiology and
Ethnomedicine (6:10) their compilation of 974 herbal mixtures made
from 330 different plants used by the curanderos to treat 164
Willsky’s lab previously identified 16, two-plant mixtures
used by Peruvian curanderos specifically to treat infectious
disease. Seven of these mixtures were studied in 2012 and 2013, and
the 2014 summer project will continue that work.
Information for prospective participants
The cost for students participating in the Peruvian study is
$2,800, which includes airfare, lodging, local transportation and
Medical students are eligible for funding through the UB School
of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Undergraduate minority students are eligible for funding through
Institute of Health, Minority Health and Health Disparities
International Research Training Grant.
Minority, first-generation and low-income undergraduate students
are eligible for funding through the McNair
Anthropology students must be fluent in Spanish. Previous
coursework on native healing traditions in Latin America and
ethnographic research methodologies is helpful. Interested
anthropology students should contact Bacigalupo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Students participating in the laboratory work must have
experience in traditional laboratory chemistry and biology courses.
Prior research experience is helpful. Interested biomedical
students should contact Willsky at email@example.com.