At a glance, nutmeg is not pretty. However, these egg-shaped seeds, with their coarse brown shells and pungent aroma, have summoned brave explorers from across the world to Indonesia’s Maluku Islands since the beginning of the 15th century.
The spice, besides adding flavor and aroma to a variety of dishes, has been sought after for its preservative and medicinal properties since ancient times.
“There are hundreds of bioactive compounds in nutmeg,” said Yanti, a PhD, lecturer and biotechnology researcher at Atma Jaya University in Jakarta.
Yanti is currently studying macelignan — a bioactive compound found in nutmeg seed extract — for use as a treatment for gout.
Her research proposal, together with those of two other female scientists, won the L’Oreal Indonesia Fellowship for Women in Science in November.
The L’Oreal Indonesia Fellowship for Women in Science is a national partnership program between L’Oreal Indonesia and the Indonesian National Commission for Unesco (KNIU) aimed at acknowledging, encouraging and supporting female researchers in Indonesia.
Since 2004, the program has awarded annual fellowships and project funding worth Rp 70 million ($7,700) to each of 16 Indonesian women for their life science research projects and another four women for their material science research proposals.
“This year, we received 28 scientific proposals that meet our evaluation criteria. Seven of them went to the final round and the best three have been awarded with the L’Oreal Fellowship for Women in Science,” said Prof. Dr. Arif Rachman, chairman of the KNIU.
“We’re very pleased to find new female talent rising in Indonesia,” Arif said.
Yanti, the youngest of 2010’s three winners, was ecstatic to learn she had won the fellowship.
Besides receiving the necessary funding for her research, she will also have interviews about her research published in national newspapers and magazines throughout the country.
“It’s never been my goal to have fame and recognition,” the 32-year-old scientist said. “It’s nice, but that’s all just secondary. What I really want to achieve in my life is to be useful to other people.”
Yanti’s research got its start when her aunt Betty, who lives with her family in Sibolga, North Sumatera, was suddenly paralyzed with pain in 2008.
“One morning, she couldn’t get out of bed,” she said.
“Her muscles spasmed. We were all alarmed and took her to a doctor.”
Medical examinations determined she was suffering from an attack of gout.
Gout is a disease that causes acute inflammatory arthritis due to a high level of uric acid in the blood.
“We were shocked,” Yanti said. “She’d always been a perfectly healthy and active person. None of our family members have gout in their medical histories.”
As a scientist, Yanti’s curiosity about the disease prompted her to launch a thorough study.
“We normally assume that gout only affects older people, mostly males,” Yanti said.
“But the 2008 Riset Kesehatan Dasar [Basic Health Research Report] conducted by the Ministry of Health stated that it is affecting more and more women between the ages of 25 and 40 years old.”
To treat her disease, her aunt had to take medicine regularly.
The medicine, produced by foreign pharmaceutical companies, was very costly.
To help with her condition, Betty began combining the doctor’s prescriptions with food supplements, but because these supplements were difficult to find in Sibolga, she began asking Yanti to buy them for her.
As Yanti was buying the supplements, she began noting their ingredients. She quickly learned that many of the supplements used plant extracts, such as pepper, ginger and temulawak (Curcuma xanthorrhiza ROXB), which are all easily found in Indonesia’s countryside.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Why don’t we try nutmeg?’ ” she said.
For centuries, people in the Maluku Islands have used nutmeg oil to reduce painful joint inflammation.
Yanti’s own research on macelignan in 2009 successfully proved the bioactive compound is effective in treating inflammations in the mouth and gums.
“Inflammations also happen from gout,” she said.
“So, I started my research with a preliminary hypothesis that nutmeg worked as an anti-inflammation agent.”
In February 2010, Yanti started a preliminary in vitro study of the compound in the laboratory at the university.
If successful, the study will be continued with animal subjects and then clinical tests on human.
“Indonesia is a primary producer of nutmeg,” she said.
“If I can find a cure for gout using nutmeg, we can probably make it into an inexpensive medicine for my aunt, as well as other Indonesian people affected with the disease.”
But the journey to a cure still has a long way to go.
The research process could take between five and eight years to produce good results. Yanti’s winning of the L’Oreal Indonesia Fellowship, however, has paved the way for her to continue.
Theodorus Eko, one of Yanti’s biotechnology students at Atma Jaya University, was glad to hear the news about her teacher winning the fellowship program.
“Indonesia is a country with so much biodiversity,” he said.
“With biotechnology, we can explore our resources for the good of humanity. With the right support for our scientists, I believe Indonesia could become a superpower in biotech research.”
Currently in his seventh semester, Theodorus himself is studying the andaliman, or Sichuan pepper, to determing its potential medical uses.
“Yanti has really inspired me,” he said.
“I hope that I can become both a scientist and a lecturer, just like her, after I finish with my studies.” But, what is life like for a young female scientists like Yanti? Is she obsessed by her work?
“Not at all,” she said, with a chuckle. “Being a scientist doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy my life.”
“The world of science doesn’t have to keep us locked away in labs like a katak dalam tempurung [a frog in a coconut shell],” she said.
“It’s very important to broaden our horizons and get to know more. Who knows? It might open more doors for us in the future.”