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Meet the plant detective who helped to solve the Pret sandwich tragedy and is now researching new ways to treat cancer


Professor Monique Simmonds had been half expecting the phone call at her lab at Kew Gardens in South-West London.

Lawyers investigating the death of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse had already sought her help as one of the country’s leading plant detectives.

Natasha, from London, had died following a severe allergic reaction she suffered on board a flight to Nice in July 2016 after eating a baguette bought from Pret A Manger.

At the time, it was unclear what had happened, and investigators asked Professor Simmonds to examine the contents of Natasha’s stomach to establish what had caused her death.

Professor Monique Simmonds OBE Deputy Director Science at the Roayal Botanical Gardens, Kew

Professor Monique Simmonds OBE Deputy Director Science at the Roayal Botanical Gardens, Kew

The Palm House of Kew Gardens in Greater London

The Palm House of Kew Gardens in Greater London

The contents were compared against the 8.5 million samples on the plant compounds database at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. This found a match for sesame, to which Natasha was highly allergic but which wasn’t listed on the baguette’s label.

A few months later, Natasha’s father, Nadim, visited the laboratory at Kew with a seed taken from the dental brace Natasha had been wearing when she died. He wanted Professor Simmonds to confirm if it was sesame.

‘From the stomach contents, we’d already identified sesamin [a compound in sesame],’ says Professor Simmonds, deputy director of science at Kew. ‘When we examined food from the brace, we found a lot more sesame. What became apparent at the inquest in 2018 into Natasha’s death was that the dough of the baguette had been made with sesame.’

This painstaking plant detective work is not unusual for Professor Simmonds, who has worked at Kew since 1985.

At the request of the police or of coroners, she helps solve crimes by analysing the surrounding fauna and flora for clues, or stomach contents for a poison or allergen that could be related to plants and fungi.

Professor Simmonds and her team are also using the resources at Kew Gardens to find ‘natural’ solutions to some of the biggest health problems — including malaria and antibiotic resistance.

The scale of the resources at Kew is mind-boggling. The gardens employ 470 scientists, has a fully equipped chemistry laboratory, and more than 2.4 billion seeds, which are stored in jars at -15c in vaults at Wakehurst, near Gatwick.

Professor Simmonds and her team are also using the resources at Kew Gardens to find 'natural' solutions to some of the biggest health problems

Professor Simmonds and her team are also using the resources at Kew Gardens to find ‘natural’ solutions to some of the biggest health problems

Professor Simmonds has worked at Kew since 1985 and does plant detective work

Professor Simmonds has worked at Kew since 1985 and does plant detective work

Known as the Millennium Seed Bank, it has been 24 years in the making, and includes 40,000 wild species of plants from 190 countries and territories — which is more than 10 per cent of the world’s flora — making it the most diverse seed bank in the world.

Kew also has a library of 8.5 million dried plant samples collected over the past 200 years, a Fungarium holding more than a million dried species of fungi, as well as the living plants which visitors to the gardens see.

‘These collections are for conservation purposes, but also so that we can look at plant chemistry to find medicinal properties,’ says Professor Simmonds. There’s huge unexplored potential in using plants as medicines. ‘Although over 25,000 of the world’s plants have documented medicinal uses since 2000BC in early texts from Persia and China, only about 200 have been incorporated into Western medicine,’ says Professor Simmonds.

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who died after eating a Pret A Manger sandwich

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who died after eating a Pret A Manger sandwich

Natasha pictured on a British Airways flight, moments before she died

Natasha pictured on a British Airways flight, moments before she died 

She believes greater use of plants in medicine could be ‘game-changing’. For some medical conditions, the use of plants is already established.

‘For example, vincristine from the rose periwinkle plant and taxanes from the bark of the Pacific yew tree have anti-cancer properties and have been turned into chemotherapy drugs which are routinely used on the NHS,’ says Professor Simmonds.

And while plants can be the cause of allergies, they may provide a remedy in future, she says.

‘Lipid transfer proteins, for example, occur in a range of fruit, vegetables, nuts and cereals to protect the plant, but they can also cause severe allergic reactions. There are other proteins in plants called Gibberellin-regulated proteins (GRPs) associated with multiple fruit allergies.’

Fruit containing GRPs include peaches, sweet cherries, oranges, pomegranate and strawberries.

To prevent these allergies, plant breeders could, in theory, reduce the levels of these proteins, says Professor Simmonds.

One of her current research projects is investigating plants as a way to treat inflammation, implicated in everything from heart disease and dementia to cancer, asthma and ageing.

Professor Simmonds and Professor Clare Bryant, a consultant in clinical pharmacology at Cambridge University, are investigating plants that can both trigger and dampen inflammation.

Current treatments, including anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen, slow down the production of prostaglandins — hormone-like chemicals that play a role in the body’s inflammatory response — but don’t tackle the underlying causes, and can also lead to side-effects such as stomach ulcers.

‘We believe that rather than a single drug to treat inflammation, a multi-factorial approach would be better, using drugs and plant compounds together,’ says Professor Simmonds.

She and Professor Bryant are using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify plants and fungi that may influence inflammatory pathways as we age.

‘We are starting with traditional Chinese medicines that are already thought to reduce inflammation — to prove if they work,’ explains Professor Simmonds.

‘We want to understand which receptors they work on, and whether you need more than one plant to have a protective effect.

Current research projects include investigating plants as a way to treat inflammation. The Palm House at Kew Gardens

Current research projects include investigating plants as a way to treat inflammation. The Palm House at Kew Gardens

Last year, scientists at Kew identified thousands of plant species that could be potential new treatments for malaria. Pictured, Kew Gardens

Last year, scientists at Kew identified thousands of plant species that could be potential new treatments for malaria. Pictured, Kew Gardens

‘With a better understanding of inflammation and help from AI, we hope to be able to identify new plants that contain ingredients which could protect against inflammation.’

She adds: ‘Herbs that show potential include rosemary, turmeric, sweet balm and liquorice.

‘This could be important for a range of illnesses, from cancer to dementia, and we hope that in five to ten years, our research will lead to new plant-based treatments for inflammation.’

Breakthroughs are coming all the time. Last year, scientists at Kew identified thousands of plant species that could be potential new treatments for malaria — one of the world’s biggest killers.

Resistance to the two main drug treatments — quinine and artemisinin (both derived from plants) — is increasing. In a study published last May, scientists reviewed 21,000 species from three plant families, some of which are found in the UK — and estimated that more than a third could have anti-malaria properties.

‘Our results highlight the vast unexplored potential of plants to produce novel medicines,’ said research fellow Adam Richard-Bollans.

‘There are an estimated 343,000 known plant species, many of which have not been subject to any scientific evaluation for their medicinal uses.’

But a new treatment is not just about identifying a plant for its medicinal properties.

Scientists also need to work out how it should be prepared and taken, and the required dose.

Another Kew study, Remembered Remedies, investigated ‘old wives’ tales’ from before 1948, gleaned from interviewing people in rural areas from Scotland to Cornwall in the 1980s.

This included the herb ajuga for treating a cough. ‘When we first made an extract from these plants and tested it, we got nothing,’ says Professor Simmonds.

‘So we did more detective work, including talking to herbalists who use these plants, and found that picking them in spring rather than autumn, for instance, using specific parts of the plant — and using it fresh, rather than dried — made a difference to how effective it was.’

Meanwhile, for Nadim Ednan-Laperouse, Professor Simmonds’s work provided the answers, however painful, that he and his wife, Tanya, had been searching for.

‘By analysing remnants from Natasha’s brace, we were able to show beyond any doubt that she had eaten sesame, and this triggered fatal anaphylaxis,’ he says.

‘She thought the baguette was safe for her to eat. It wasn’t.

‘Having that information has led to huge changes for the two to three million people in this country with food allergies.’

In 2021, the introduction of Natasha’s Law meant all food retailers now have to display full ingredient and allergen labelling on products that are pre-packed for direct sale. Nadim says: ‘Every day it is protecting people with food allergies from potentially fatal allergic reactions.’



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