Hidden studies from the Soviet Union: PhD student uncovers body of evidence

Published 16 November 2020
A large room containing shelves and books

During the time of the Soviet Union, a targeted research directive on the popular adaptogenic herb Eleutherococcus – also known as Siberian ginseng – was undertaken in the USSR, that until recently has been kept largely hidden from the global scientific community.

In 2018, PhD student Sophia Gerontakos, an eager Honours student working with Professor Jon Wardle of the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM), was investigating adaptogens as a part of her research when she made a pivotal connection with Professor Alexander Shikov from St Petersburg State Chemical Pharmeceutical University.  

Shortly after they met, Professor Shikov realised their shared interest and invited Ms Gerontakos to Russia to browse the archives and translate the secret knowledge of the 60-year-old research – something that had never crossed Ms Gerontakos’ mind, despite reading about the research directive earlier in her project.  

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be invited by a Russian researcher to access and translate the very studies I had read about.

“Living in St Petersburg for a month, immersed in the culture and delving into long-forgotten research on one of my most favourite and frequently-used herbal medicines was incredible. It was a naturopath’s dream, really!”

During her time in St Petersburg, Ms Gerontakos visited a number of research libraries, where she sat each day for three weeks with a Russian student sourcing and translating all the studies from Russian books and conference proceedings into English.

“I found myself in some of the most beautiful libraries and buildings I have ever seen. To be spending our long days working in such special places filled with such a rich history made the experience even more wonderful.

“It inspired me to keep going after days and weeks of non-stop intensive translation and data-extracting.

“It was a huge journey to embark on. Nearly 50 research papers needed the scientific data extracted and translated from Russian to English; I definitely needed to take some Siberian ginseng to keep my cognitive function going strong!” said Ms Gerontakos.

The historical, and substantial body of evidence, undertaken from 1960 to 1980, included many large-scale clinical trials testing the effect of Siberian ginseng on many different body systems including the immune system, cardiovascular system, sensory systems, cognitive function, on physical endurance and on the stress-adaptation response.  

“Siberian ginseng is very commonly used by western herbalists and naturopaths, so this knowledge will add an invaluable scientific contribution to the evidence-base,” said Ms Gerontakos.

“It will help us to deepen our understanding of the clinical use of Siberian ginseng and to add some clarity around areas that have been topics of confusion and disagreements from the lack of translation of the evidence previously.”

Professor Wardle is supervising this research with Sophia and is excited about what this means for the naturopathic and herbalist community.

“This is one of those herbal medicines that is extraordinarily popular worldwide – often based on second-hand stories of research on the plant from the former Soviet Union – yet the details of any research are often difficult to find.

“We need more research on popular herbal medicines such as Siberian ginseng to see what impact they can have on health, and Sophia’s work in Russia is incredibly important to build a foundation for this work, filling in those gaps to help guide research questions more effectively,” said Professor Wardle.


To Russia and Back: Uncovering secret studies on Eleutherococcus - webinar

Sophia Gerontakos will be hosting an online presentation about her research this Wednesday 18th November at 7pm (AEST) for the QLD chapter of the Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Humanitix page here

Media contact: Caitlin Zillman, Marketing and Communications Manager, National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine 0424 632 177 or Caitlin.zillman@scu.edu.au