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Herbal cure for pancreatic cancer

Kalyan Ray, October 17, 2012, New Delhi, DHNS: 0:51 IST

Indians in 11-member team that tweaked Chinese medicines to discover drug

Scientists claim to have discovered a new drug against pancreatic cancer, exploiting a natural plant product derived from a herb used in Chinese medicine for centuries.

Successful laboratory-based experiments with the new molecule could open up a promising treatment avenue for pancreatic cancer patients, who have few options by way of therapies. The new drug has been developed from a plant chemical called triptolide found in a Chinese vine, Tripterygium wilfordii, that has a long history of use in Chinese medicine.

However, triptolide’s use as a new chemotherapeutic agent was hitherto limited because of a major bottleneck – the chemical’s poor solubility in water.

An 11-member team from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, has now developed a water-soluble version of the chemical and successfully tested its efficacy as an anti-cancer drug on cancer cell lines in the laboratory and mice. Seven out of 11 members of the team are of Indian descent.

The new drug from the modified compound - minnelide - named after Minnesota is tweaked for more effective delivery to pancreatic cells.

Minnelide was more effective in preclinical studies than gemcitabine, which was the first-line chemotherapeutic agent for pancreatic cancer, the researchers reported in October 17 issue of Science Translational Medicine. “It is highly efficacious in reducing pancreatic tumour growth and spread and improving survival. In one study, animals in the control group survived for 36 days, whereas animals treated with Minnelide continued to live for more than 385 days, more that 10-fold longer than untreated animals,” team leader Ashok Saluja told Deccan Herald.

Pancreatic cancer has a poor rate of cure. The all-stage five-year survival rate for this cancer is only five per cent, which remained unchanged over the last three decades.

Surgical removal is the only opportunity for many. But only 10 to 20 per cent of patients present early enough to be considered candidates for curative surgery. In contrast, 40 per cent patients have metastatic disease at presentation and the rest have locally advanced disease that is not amenable to surgical correction. Worldwide more than 2,50,000 people die every year from this disease. Previous work demonstrated triptolide could inhibit a protein called HSP70, which protects cells from dying. Pancreatic cancer cells may harbour too much of this protective protein.

The Minnesota team discovered that triptolide can reduce levels of HSP70 in cells and subsequently reduce cancer in mice. They found in all cases that the drug is extremely good at killing tumour cells and shrinking tumours. “The team has updated an ancient remedy. They have elevated the standard for advancing a therapeutic strategy,” pointed out Sunil Hingorani, a cancer biologist at Fred Hutchinson cancer centre at Seattle, who is not linked to the study.

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