Researcher Spotlight: Dr Andrea Bugarcic on Parkinson’s and naturopathic medicine
As Senior Lecturer and Course Coordinator at the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM), Dr Andrea Bugarcic has a strong commitment to building positive outcomes for the naturopathic profession by furthering education and research opportunities for students, as well as contributing her own meaningful research outcomes. April is Parkinson’s awareness month, so we caught up with Dr Bugarcic to find out what inspired her flair for science from an early age, her passion for building the evidence base in naturopathic medicine, and her research into medical cannabis and Parkinson’s Disease.
What inspired you to follow a research and education career in naturopathic medicine?
Living in Serbia, Europe, I actually grew up around herbs. My Mum, who is a medical doctor, used herbs as part of her clinical practice and at home and always believed in prevention before anything else. I didn’t know then that herbal medicine, prevention, lifestyle and nutrition modifications form the basis of naturopathic medicine. The profession itself came into focus some time later, after I trained and worked as a pre-clinical scientist and educator. I guess the career in naturopathic medicine was always there – I just needed time to recognise it.
How have your experiences shaped your career as both a researcher and educator?
I grew up in a country where the medical system placed emphasis on individual wellbeing and prevention of disease and in a family that was very science and medicine oriented - my Mum was a medical doctor and a clinical microbiologist, while Dad was a chemist. So, I guess my flair for science and medicine started when I was really young. At school, I had two amazing biology teachers, who I am still in contact with, who really shaped my science interests in cellular biology and biochemistry. I always knew I didn’t want to become a clinician, but I did want to help people – hence training in science with the potential for far-reaching outputs.
I always wanted to understand how things worked, as once you know how something works – you can manipulate it. With my science training I met some amazing mentors that shaped my thinking about scientific discoveries, the world around me and my contribution to that world. Then I decided to try teaching at a university and absolutely loved watching ‘lightbulbs’ go off the in the minds of students.
That is the point where my science training met naturopathy education – as I worked with some absolute stars in the naturopathic field, I had to adjust my scientific mind so that science, education and the complexity of naturopathic practice could co-exist. Now I am developing courses and research streams that take all of my bits of understanding to assist the naturopathic profession.
Tell us about your research into medicinal cannabis and Parkinson’s and how it came about?
I became fascinated with the molecular basis of Parkinson’s Disease as a post-doctoral scientist a few years ago. A sub-cellular protein complex I was working on was found to be associated with Parkinson’s disease using genome-wide association studies. The lab I worked in at the time characterised why these discovered point mutations lead to cellular manifestations of Parkinson’s. This level of molecular understanding of the disease is important – scientists can try and repair the broken cogs if they know where the system is broken.
My interest in cannabis was ignited by a conversation that grew into a collaboration with Dr Janet Schloss – Clinical Research Fellow at NCNM. I find cannabis is a fascinating plant and there are plenty of researchers that are looking into the chemistry of cannabis itself. However, because of its chemical complexity, possible beneficial health outcomes of this plant have not really been explored as much. Evidence from international research shows Parkinson’s Disease patients use cannabis for a range of motor and non-motor symptoms and the question really is - can this plant become a tool in the arsenal that addresses symptoms and/or the cause of Parkinson’s.
At this point, I am interested not just in cannabis but a range of herbal medicines and how they can address the broken molecular cogs. So, the pre-clinical research part of the National Centre is establishing relevant models and assays to look at herbal medicine and cellular Parkinson’s Disease from a holistic and understanding perspective. Once we know which herbal medicine is promising in this setting, we can then investigate molecular implications as well as clinical outputs in collaboration with the NCNM Clinical Trials Centre.
I recently signed up to be a Guest Editor of a special issue of Cells called ‘Focus on Cellular Parkinson’s Disease - from Gut to Brain’. I am currently inviting submissions from colleagues that are interested in cellular Parkinson’s Disease. More information can be found here.
What has been your most rewarding study to date?
My hardest and most rewarding study would have to be my PhD in molecular virology, specifically on rotavirus. It taught me not just about science and experiments and machines but also about myself and who I wanted to be as a person. It really provided grounding for adaptable thinking, for being open to possibilities and to making sure life happens in parallel to my career.
What aspect of conducting research excites you the most?
Finding the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ – knowing answers to these questions can really change the course of your thinking and research itself. When you understand how something works, it leads to more targeted changes.
What role do you hope to play in furthering education and research opportunities for students at the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine?
I have worked in naturopathic medicine education for seven years now and I have a very good appreciation of the profession itself and how to align education to supply this profession with more amazing clinicians, researchers and leaders. I hope to continue doing this as I absolutely love teaching, but also plan to really drive the understanding of herbal medicine on molecular and cellular levels using practice-tradition-science nexus. In my opinion, pre-clinical research in herbal medicine needs to align with the practice of naturopathy – from more complex models to assays that can answer synergistic questions.
In this space I already have several PhD students and they are working towards bringing pre-clinical and clinical practice of herbal medicine closer together. We are working in bacterial and mammalian systems at the moment, but we are open to hear other ideas that could be explored.
The National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine at Southern Cross University is a centre internationally recognised for its research and support of the naturopathic industry. We create, promote and advocate a strong culture of incorporating evidence-based science into healthcare education and clinical practice.