Dr Sriyani Jayaweera, who lectures at Newcastle College, is hoping to discover the precise nature of popular Asian herbal cures for rheumatism, gastritis, eczema, diabetes and several forms of skin cancer.
She has been awarded a pound;1,000 grant by the Royal Society of Chemistry to buy chemicals required to analyse in the laboratory remedies used in ayurveda, the Hindu system of holistic medicine practised in India and the Far East. "Herbal cures have been used in Asian countries for at least 1,000 years," said Dr Jayaweera, who left her native Sri Lanka to study chemistry at Newcastle University more than 16 years ago. "Some cures are used not only to treat established diseases but also as preventive medicines.
"Generations have used herbs and plants to make medicines for different conditions without actually knowing how or why they work.
"My aim over the next year is to discover what the properties are, so they may be harnessed by modern chemistry and used to treat people's ailments more effectively."
Individual plants and herbs have been analysed scientifically for many years, but Dr Jayaweera will concentrate on specific, tried and tested homeopathic cures made by an alternative therapy herbalist in Sri Lanka. It is unusual to find a grant of this kind made to a further education college.
Awards are usually made to university research projects. However, Dr Jayaweera teaches students in the college who are on the early stages of a franchised degree, the BSc in chemical and pharmaceutical science, for Sunderland University.
Dr Jayaweera said: "Luckily for me Newcastle College recently bought a piece of equipment called a rotary evaporator which is essential to my work.
"Without this I would have had to borrow one or try to buy one. Even second hand, it would have been expensive."
The research project will involve the isolation and purification of the remedies' active ingredients by chromatography. Dr Jayaweera, who gained a PhD in chemistry at Newcastle University and has conducted research into the eye condition glaucoma at Sheffield University, will report her research to the RSC by October 1999.
The awards committee, consisting of eminent chemists and scientists, will decide then whether to fund her research for a further year.
The project will also give Newcastle College A-level chemistry students the opportunity to work with Dr Jayaweera.
"This will give them a chance to undertake some practical work which actually has some meaning," she said.