Herbal research facility planned

Western Md. site would include medicinal products factory, think tank and museum

Baltimore & Region

October 14, 2005|By DENNIS O'BRIEN | DENNIS O'BRIEN,SUN REPORTER

Cumberland -- The University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and two universities plan to build a $60 million research and manufacturing facility in Western Maryland to investigate the health benefits of the region's herbal plants and to market the plants if they work.

The plan, proposed by officials at UMBI, Frostburg State and West Virginia University, was announced yesterday at a conference organized to promote the study and use of herbal plants.

Sales of medicinal and nutritional herbs generate an estimated $4 billion annually in the United States and $20 billion worldwide, conference organizers said.

About 25 medicinal plants grow in Western Maryland, including ginseng, which is harvested and used in teas, chewing gum and beer.

But most of the region's potential as an herbal medicine chest remains untapped, officials say.

"We don't have a manufacturing plant. We don't have a tea company. We don't have anything in this region, but we should," Jennie Hunter-Cevera, UMBI president, told about 100 people at the conference.

The three schools formed the Appalachian Center for Ethnobotanical Studies about two years ago to focus research on herbal remedies.

But it wasn't until yesterday that they secured their first major funding: $300,000 for initial studies secured by Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats.

"That's really a down payment for us to go forward," Hunter-Cevera said.

Officials say they would like to see a research facility, a manufacturing plant for medicinal herbs, a think tank and a museum of Appalachian folklore built along Maryland's border with West Virginia. In all, about 250,000 square feet of space would be needed.

No site has been selected, the source of funding remains unclear and the facilities are probably five to 10 years away, officials said.

The concept won qualified support yesterday from federal and state officials.

"It's a lofty goal, but given what you see on the consumer side, with all of the interest in herbals and nutritional supplements, it makes sense," said Lawrence C. Mahan, director of biosciences for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

Sarbanes said the effort was worth considering because the schools planned to proceed in stages and would initially limit spending to research in herbal remedies.

"I think this is a tremendously exciting prospect," he told the conference.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

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