There’s More to This Plant Than Meets the Eye

Cleome rupicola, a plant found in abundance in the UAE and surrounding regions, has traditionally been used as a natural treatment for cataracts.

For centuries, UAE tribal communities treated cataracts with medicine extracted from a common desert plant, but the science behind why it works is just getting started

Fast Facts

  • Cleome rupicola, a plant found in abundance in the UAE and surrounding regions, has traditionally been used as a natural treatment for cataracts.
  • Historic literature and some ethnographic research confirms its use among UAE tribal populations, but the science behind it is still progressing.
  • NYUAD chemistry major Yumi Gambrill, Class of 2018, extracted a compound in the plant’s fruit that may explain its effectiveness.
  • Her Capstone research in the Naumov Lab won second place at the 2018 UAE Undergraduate Research Competition.

 I really like the fact that I’m doing research that pertains to the UAE and its long tradition of Islamic medicine. I felt like I was really connected to the UAE.

Yumi Gambrill, Class of 2018

Why did you decide to research this plant?

There’s a broad range of plants available in the UAE that are really interesting and a lot of them have medicinal uses. The trick was to focus on something that wasn’t very well studied and has something really compelling about it. Anti-cataract activity is something that stood out when I was reading papers about plants that I could potentially focus on. It’s a huge public health issue, especially in developing countries, where surgical treatment — which is really the only available treatment right now — is either expensive or hard to access. Cataracts is a leading cause of blindness in developing countries.

The plant that I focused on, the Cleome rupicola, had traditionally been used as a cataract treatment in UAE tribal communities. There’s actually quite a bit of ethnographic literature that shows this. There are papers published, it’s listed in handbooks of Arabian plants, and it’s well-known in traditional healers’ and doctors circles. But there’s little scientific backing. This was an opportunity for us to address a massive gap in knowledge. It works, but why?

How and where did you find your samples?

It was actually very easy. There’s a perception of Abu Dhabi and the UAE is that it’s a country with lots of sand and you wouldn’t necessarily think there’s so much biodiversity. But if you go out toward the mountains it’s incredible, there are a lot of interesting plants out that way. It really opened my eyes.

We drove around remote, rocky areas (near the Ras Al-Khaimah and Fujairah borders) to find a spot that looked promising and would jump out to see if we could find them — and we did.

It was interesting because the place we found most of the samples had recently been used as a stopping point for some still-nomadic people, according to our guide, a plant expert from the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai. I hadn’t had a chance to interact with that part of UAE culture so it was cool to get to see that. There was flowing water in the area, it was actually really diverse. There were all sorts of animals, butterflies, and bugs. I felt like I was really connected with the UAE and the kind of work that I was doing.

Describe your lab work.

We brought the samples back to the lab and freeze-dried them. The plant was separated into parts so we could focus on its fruits. We harvested in March, when it was flowering and producing seeds.

We assessed parts of the plant that are the most useful. Antioxidant activity is thought to prevent cataracts from forming because of the way the mechanism works, so we focused on antioxidant activity in the fruits of the plant.

We followed traditional preparations. Water extraction, which is pretty much like making tea, and then tests and purification. I used a lot of the core equipment in the lab for the purification, which came in really handy.

After a few months we had a purified compound, less than a milligram. The structural elucidation of this compound serves as the first step in the development of an anti-cataract drug, and verifies the modern relevance of a historically significant medicinal plant.

What happens now?

There is still a lot of ambiguity and the lab work is continuing after I graduate. It’s a complicated compound and these things can take a very long time. I’ve got it narrowed down to two major candidates. We’re fairly confident of one and but we do have data that indicates it might be something else.

After graduation, Yumi, who minored in political science, will be working as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton in Abu Dhabi and hopes her research will lead to more studies about the Cleome rupicola plant’s medicinal properties.