Drug makers are interested in an ancient Chinese medicine after Harvard found out how it works

A worker weighs Chinese herbs as she prepares prescriptions at Beijing's Capital Medical University Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital April 6, 2010. The hospital distributes around 20,000 doses of their herbal medicine daily, which amounts to more than five tonnes of ingredients. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners are offering their treatments as an alternative to vaccinations after a series of health product safety scandals in China over the past few years. China's Health Ministry announced today an immediate investigation into bad vaccines that have been blamed for the deaths of four children in northern Shanxi province. China, often called the world's factory, is struggling to convince a sceptical domestic and global audience it has won a battle to improve safety standards. The world will mark World Health Day on April 7. REUTERS/David GreyA worker weighs Chinese herbs as she prepares prescriptions at Beijing’s Capital Medical University Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital.

A company that specialises in turning University research into marketable drugs is licensing Harvard research related to the blue evergreen hydrangea root, a part of the plant that has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries.

Allied-Bristol Life Sciences, a joint venture between university commercialisation specialist Allied Minds and US pharmaceuticals giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, is licensing research carried out by Professor Malcolm Whitman and Dr Tracy Keller at Harvard from 2002 onwards.

The pair found that the active ingredient in blue evergreen hydrangea root, called halofuginone, can block a type of rogue T-cell and also identified how it blocks these cells.

T-cells are the part of the immune system that tackles viruses, but rogue T-cells attack healthy cells and can cause inflammation and damage. This occurs in autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes and lupus.

Allied-Bristol Life Sciences is hoping to use the Harvard research, based on a synthetic form of halofuginone, to develop drugs to treat these types of diseases.

Whitman and Keller’s findings were published in 2012 and reported on the effects of halofuginone on a mouse with a model of multiple sclerosis. But this is the first time a company has explicitly stated they want to make a drug based on the research.

Blue hydrangea root has been used for at least 2,000 years in Chinese medicine and its efficacy was first noticed in the 1940s in the West, according to Harvard Magazine’s report of Whitman and Keller’s research.

But until the Harvard pair studied the root nobody knew exactly how it worked, meaning it was impossible to replicate its effects in a drug.

Allied-Bristol Life Sciences CEO Satish Jindal says: “The work done by Whitman and Keller is a terrific example of a promising early-stage therapeutic application that has the potential to make a significant difference to patients.

“We are pleased to support this project through the next phase of drug discovery to identify a candidate for clinical development. This is a great example of the type of university research that ABLS looks for, where our expertise and experience can accelerate bringing new therapies to patients that need them.”

Dr Whitman says: “Our research is at the right stage for an infusion of resources and expertise to accelerate its progression. We look forward to seeing the development of lead compounds from our laboratories into novel therapeutics for the treatment of fibrotic disease, and potentially other indications.”

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