Her patient approach to health: Tapping traditional remedies to fight modern super bugs

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Aug. 16, 2012

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Cassandra Quave bridges traditional and modern medicine as an ethnobotanist, studying human interactions with plants. Photo courtesy of Cassandra Quave.

Cassandra Quave was first immersed in the battle against infectious diseases when she was 3 years old and hospitalized with a life-threatening case of staph.

"That's probably why I feel a strong connection to people who deal with these kinds of infections," says Quave, a graduate of Emory College who is now a post-doctoral fellow at Emory's Center for the Study of Human Health.

Quave just received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to pursue her research into how an extract from a tree common in forests across Europe might help fight antibiotic-resistant staph. The five-year project led by Quave will include collaborators from the Emory Institute for Drug Development, the University of Iowa and Montana State University.

She notes that prolific use of modern drugs in our society helped turn multi-drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) into the leading cause of invasive disease, killing more people every year than AIDS. And the remedies of traditional healers may lead to better ways of treating it.

"Ideally, we should combine the best of both modern medicine and complementary alternative medicine," says Quave. She bridges the two worlds as a medical ethnobotanist, studying human interactions with plants.

At 34, Quave already has a utility patent for one promising medicinal plant extract, and has filed a disclosure for a second patent. In 2011, she formed the bio-venture startup PhytoTEK with a friend from Harvard Business School, Sahil Patel, who is also an Emory alumnus. PhytoTEK advanced to the final round of the Harvard Business School's Alumni New Venture Contest, placing in the top three of the global finals.

The unusual career of Quave (rhymes with "wave") has been forged by everything from interviewing native healers in the Peruvian Amazon to undergoing dozens of major medical procedures in the United States.

She grew up in the small town of Arcadia, in a rural area of South Florida, where her mother was a teacher and her father ran a land-clearing business for agriculture. She had multiple congenital birth defects of her skeletal system, including missing part of her right calf bone. When she was 3, her right leg was amputated below the knee in an effort to improve her mobility.

"The doctors told my mother not to unwrap the bandages, but she noticed this horrible stench coming from my leg and knew that something wasn't right," Quave says. "As she took off the bandages, the flesh just fell off the bone. It was almost liquefied."

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