Indigenous source of tamiflu yet to catch govt attention


A team of scientists from University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) here earlier this year came out with findings that certain plants in the Western Ghats, a mega-diversity hotspot in South India, contain shikimic acid, the starting material and the ''precursor'' for making tamiflu.

"I am hoping that the Ministry of Health or someone (from the government) approaches us," Dr. R Uma Shaanker, Professor at the Department of Crop Physiology and School of Ecology & Conservation, UAS, the Principal Investigator leading a team of over 20 scientists, said.

The team, working on the project supported by the Department of Biotechnology, looked at 250-odd species of plants in the Western Ghats and found that some half-a-dozen of them had substantial amount of shikimic acid.

Shaanker said at least half-a-dozen bulk fine chemical producers, those from the pharmaceutical industry, and those who manufacture tamiflu by importing shikimic acid from China, have approached UAS to see our proposition.

These companies are willing to adopt the Indian source if they can save 20 per cent of the cost. "We have been getting enquiries from industries and there are some industries that are interested in seeing the economic feasibility," Shaanker said.

Asked if he thought the Indian source of shikimic acid is an economically-viable option, Shaanker said, "I have a feeling it would be economically viable. But to be frank, I am completely ignorant of industrial processing".

As the private industries would be driven by profit motive, he wants the government to take the lead in making tamiflu drugs using the Indian source with the help of public sector companies, particularly because it has now become a social cause.

"We (UAS) can offer all the information we have. The three years of information that we got. The leads that we have got. Now, Health Ministry can ask its public sector companies what they can do in this regard," he said.

UAS scientists began their work three years ago to look for an Indian source of shikimic acid at the height of the birdflu scare. Now, this research undertaken with modern technical tools, has provided a source to make tamiflu.

Shikimic acid has also been found in the seeds of star anise plant in China. In India, it has been found in the leaves of some plants.

"The important thing is that it (shikimic acid)is coming from leaves. Leaf is a renewable source of material biomass which can easily become applicable if someone is interested in extracting shikimic acid from Indian source," Shaanker explained.

He said some Indian firms procure shikimic acid from China.

A team of Indian scientists led by Shaanker has found 'desi' sources of anti-cancer compound that can be made from certain plants in the Western Ghats and is close to uncovering the one used for treating Alzheimer's disease.

"We have found something very, very interesting...some high yielding Indian sources (anti-cancer compound)," he said.

Noting that Galantamine is the known compound for Alzheimer's disease, Shaanker said "now we are looking at our own Indian plants that can be sources of Galantamine. We are hopeful of getting something on Alzheimer's shortly."

The idea is to cultivate these plants on a large-scale by forming a network of farmers.
He said though India has a rich bio-diversity and has close to about 45,000 plants, its contribution to world drug market has been "very bleak" and almost negligible in terms of fine chemicals.

"We (India) only ship herbal material. No one has really bothered about identifying compounds. So, one of the focus in our labs is to know alternative sources using some modern tools," he said.

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