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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2004

[Board accepted]

Partnering for Phytomedicine Research

Carla Long Casler
Arid Lands Information Center
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona 85721


The Arid Lands Information Center (ALIC) is the Information Collection and Dissemination Unit for the Arizona Center for Phytomedicine Research (ACPRx), which received funding from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health. Besides providing research support to scientists in the College of Pharmacy, the College of Medicine, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona, ALIC is responsible for creating the ACPRx web site to provide information to the public about ACPRx project activities and to direct consumers to reliable sources of information about herbal medicine. This paper will describe the ACPRx project and challenges faced in finding the most effective way to support the researchers and the goals of the project.

The Arid Lands Information Center (ALIC) at the Office of Arid Lands Studies in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona is unique among libraries in that it does not have a budget for acquisitions or library operations. From the beginning, ALIC has supported its staff and operations with grant and project work, which over the last ten years has turned increasingly toward electronic dissemination of information through the development of web sites. ALIC's participation in the Arizona Center for Phytomedicine Research grew from our association with Dr. Barbara Timmermann, a scientist and faculty member in the Office of Arid Lands Studies before moving into the College of Pharmacy. Due to productive collaborations in the past, Dr. Timmermann continues to include ALIC in her projects that have components for information management and dissemination.

The Arizona Center for Phytomedicine Research (ACPRx) began in 2000 with funding from National Institutes of Health (NIH) Grant # P50-AT00474. The NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) provided initial funding for the development of national-level Dietary Supplements Research Centers with an emphasis on botanicals. These centers conduct research on selected phytomedicines to determine their active ingredients, safety and effectiveness through scientific methods.

ACPRx focuses its research on three botanicals that are considered to have anti-inflammatory properties and to be effective in treating arthritis or other chronic inflammatory diseases:

The empirical research is a collaborative effort by scientists in the College of Pharmacy, the College of Medicine, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who study the botany, microbiology, and analytical chemistry of these plants, as well as their mechanisms of actions in vitro and in vivo and the pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic behavior of their active compounds.

As the Information Collection and Dissemination Unit to the project, ALIC has three goals in this project:

ALIC personnel involved with the project are Barbara Hutchinson, project manager, Katherine Waser, editor and technical writer, Anne Thwaits, web designer, Carla Casler, research support and evaluator of web sites. Another person involved is ALIC's programming consultant, Jerry Henzel of Precipice Development, who manages many technical aspects of the project, including creating a search engine and database that simplified efforts to collect, evaluate, and annotate useful web sites.

ACPRx home page

ALIC's first challenge was encountered promptly at the initial meeting of the project participants. The scientists spoke with chemical and medical vocabularies and ALIC spoke with computer and information science vocabularies. The technical words were difficult, but the plentiful acronyms were particularly daunting. For example, HPLC means High-Performance Liquid Chromatography; MS means Mass Spectrometry. These are tools for separating complex mixtures, establishing purity parameters, as well as identifying and characterizing unknown components.

Besides the complexity of explaining research activities, there was the necessity of protecting any proprietary information. Content development involved listening, studying, writing, re-writing and checking everything once, twice or more with the scientists and the Principal Investigator.

Providing research support also proved challenging in unexpected ways. Finding an effective way to deliver results required some experimenting. The first Dialog search of EMBASE and Chemical Abstracts printed on 500 pages. Routing this between 8 scientists in five different buildings around campus proved problematic. In the hope of speeding up the routing and minimizing the chance of the printout languishing in someone's inbox for days or weeks, the printout was divided into 4 parts and routed separately with instructions that each person return the search to ALIC to record which publications should be retrieved. Unfortunately, parts of the printout were lost and never found. Finally, it became clear that the scientists were most in need of current awareness searches delivered to them by email. To meet this need, monthly searches of Web of Science are conducted for the three plants and related terms and the results are emailed to the researchers. They respond by email or mail designating any documents they need retrieved.

For the public, ALIC created three "Finding Information" pages listing 1) organizations which present authoritative content on the web, 2) relevant free databases on the web, and 3) descriptions of bibliographic databases which are rich sources of information on medicinal plants.

Beyond this, ALIC is also collecting useful sites on particular medicinal plants. To facilitate this, Jerry Henzel developed a database structure and web interface for ALIC to populate with sites providing dependable information about specific medicinal plants. He created a search engine named "Pawook," the Ukrainian word for "spider." Pawook searches several major search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, AlltheWeb, Excite, Lycos, Hotbot, Webcrawler, Altavista and Teoma. The results are displayed in a structure that allows ALIC to quickly access the collected sites and provides a streamlined process for approving and annotating sites or deleting sites. The annotations are brief descriptions of any unique features of the sites, such as photos, or aspect of coverage, such as chemical analysis or history of medicinal uses. As of April 2003, 500 sites have been approved and 2000 deleted.

[Web interface for ALIC]

The URLs for the deleted sites are moved to another file of the database. As new searches are conducted, the results are checked against the deleted list - unless the site has been updated, the "deleted" sites will not be re-displayed for review. The ratio of 500 approved sites compared to 2000 deleted gives the impression that there are strict standards for acceptance. Actually, it is difficult to find substantive sites. ALIC deletes sites which are only lists of plants or product ingredients, or which provide only one or two sentences of information that is available on other more informative sites.

In the course of examining many sites, ALIC discovered something unexpected. Unusual phrasing, such as "Boswellia is a moderate to large branching tree found in the dry hilly areas of India" was repeated on several different sites. Closer scrutiny revealed that there are a couple of subscription services that provide herbal content for web sites. Herbal and pharmaceutical companies can subscribe to one of these and add the content to their web sites as a way to market their herbal remedies. To minimize the links to duplicated subscription content, ALIC only approves those copyrighted in 2002 or 2003. Sites in foreign languages pose a special problem. In general, these are saved, but not approved; perhaps in the future there will be funding to hire language specialists to evaluate these.

To access search results and track which ones need to be evaluated, there is a "Manage Searches" page. This lists all search statements and links to an interface that offers options for selecting sites to display including "Not Approved" sites, or "Blank Public Note," which means they need annotations.

[Manage searches page]

To help us track our progress, there is a "Statistics" page that details search statements and their status in the evaluation process.

[Statistics page]

A prototype public search interface has also been developed to allow visitors to the ACPRX site to search among the sites we have approved. This can be accessed from the home page via the link to ACPRx Clearinghouse of Information on Phytomedicines

[Public search interface]

ACPRx is a challenging, rewarding project. It has provided an opportunity for ALIC to participate in an interdisciplinary project with faculty from several Colleges across campus and to learn about fundamental complexities in botanical, pharmaceutical, and medical research.

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