China ginseng signing-2: Miao Jianhua, director of the Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants, right, in Nanning, China, conducts a tour of the garden’s research laboratories for local businessman Ted LaRoche, far left, of Greenway Herbal Products. Also attending is MTSU professor Iris Gao, who will serve as the American director of the newly formed International Ginseng Institute, second from left, MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee and state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro. MTSU Photo by Andrew Oppmann

NANNING, CHINA — Middle Tennessee State University and its primary research partner in China agreed to create a joint ginseng institute that will study, develop and promote Tennessee-grown herbal products for sale in Asia and other emerging markets.

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee, seated left, and Miao Jianhua, director of the Guangxi
Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants, sign an agreement to establish a joint international research center for the study of Tennessee-grown ginseng. Also present at the signing, back, from left, is local businessman Ted LaRoche of Greenway Herbal Products; state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro; MTSU professor Iris Gao, who will serve as the center’s American director;
MTSU professor Elliot Altman, who leads the Tennessee Center of Botanical Medicine Research at MTSU; and officials from the Guangxi garden. Photo by MTSU Andrew Oppmann

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee and Miao Jianhua, director of the Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants, signed the agreement during McPhee’s barnstorming trip through China that has taken him also to Beijing, Hangzhou and Changsha.

The new International Ginseng Institute, with MTSU professor Iris Gao serving as its American director, will spin off from the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research at MTSU, which will continue to work with the garden on other projects.

“This collaboration between MTSU, the Guangxi Botanical Garden and business and industry is pioneering and a model for other types of collaborations between our countries,” McPhee said.

There’s a video recap from the agreement signing online at:

Miao said the garden plans to spend the equivalent of about $30 million in U.S. dollars for the construction in August of a new lab at the Nanning complex to support the effort. The garden has been designated one of China’s top 10 research facilities in funding priority.

He also outlined the garden’s plans to hire later up to 130 researchers and staff devoted to the institute, which he envisions will eventually include an agricultural center and a “health experience center” that will extol the virtues of ginseng as a health supplement.

Ginseng, an over-the-counter supplement used to boost the immune system, was one of the first herbs from traditional Chinese medicine to be widely used. It is popular with those suffering from colds or flu or whose immune systems are suppressed, such as cancer patients.

Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina are the top three states among the 19 that can legally harvest and trade ginseng in the U.S.

Gao said more than 100 Tennessee farmers have signed up to learn how to grow “wild-simulated ginseng,” which will be sourced from wild stock and maintain the same potency and market price as wild-grown ginseng, which is greater than the field-cultivated roots. Earlier this month, Gao invited farmers and others interested in Tennessee ginseng to the first information session she will hold regularly at MTSU on her work.

MTSU recently received a $148,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to fund Yao’s efforts and to develop an added-value certification to validate the medicinal potency of harvested ginseng root.

Miao said there is a strong demand for Tennessee-grown ginseng in China, particularly in major cities, because most domestic strains of the herb no longer have similar potency. 

Miao and McPhee also discussed creating a “one-plus-two” exchange of master’s degree students, who could spend a year studying the institute’s work in Nanning, then two years with MTSU researchers on the Murfreesboro campus. 

McPhee said Gao’s appointment as the institute’s American director signaled MTSU’s commitment to the enterprise. “Dr. Gao is one of our university’s most talented research scientists and has the ability and drive to make this new institute a great success,” he said. 

Gao, who joined MTSU in 2011, earned a Ph.D. in plant molecular biology from Peking University in 2004 and also studied for three years at Yale University. She previously assisted MTSU professor Elliot Altman’s research in MTSU’s botanical medicine center and will continue to collaborate on that center’s projects. 

Gao’s research has focused on various biological and pharmaceutical activities of medicinal plants. She has filed for three international patents of potential therapeutic agents. 

In addition to Gao and Altman, McPhee was accompanied at the signing by state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and two local businessmen, Ted LaRoche and Edward Chiles, whose Greenway Herbal Projects firm has given $2.5 million toward MTSU’s herbal research. 

McPhee, who noted that LaRoche and Chiles were exploring opportunities from this venture, said “engaging investors who will help make this a reality” was “a recipe for success.” 

MTSU donor Paul Martin, who accompanied McPhee on the first leg of the China trip, arranged for the first contribution to the new institute: A $2,500 check from the Walter and Edith Loebenberg Foundation to help Gao with initial startup costs. 

The university’s pursuit of the study of ginseng goes back to 2013, when Ketron encouraged MTSU to use its China ties and research expertise to help Tennessee farmers add ginseng as a cash crop. Farmers typically earn about $620 per acre from corn, while ginseng can bring in more than $40,000 per acre. 

The senator also helped gain state funding in November 2013 for a demonstration plot for ginseng at the 438-acre School of Agribusiness and Agriscience Experiential Learning and Research Laboratory to determine best practices for growing the herb. 

MTSU has made international engagement one of its strategic priorities. As such, McPhee has focused on MTSU’s international undergraduate and graduate enrollment, particularly in China, as well as research opportunities. 

The university recently extended its partnership with the garden, the world’s largest home to traditional medicine plants with more than 5,000 distinct samples, until 2021. 

The president’s stop in Nanning was the last in a four-stop outreach in China. It began in Beijing, then Hangzhou and Changsha before Nanning, also home of Guangxi University, where he lectures Tuesday. The trip was organized by MTSU’s Confucius Institute.