From Condiment to Drug: Dr Michael Graz, Managing Director of Neem Biotech presenting as part of the first Cardiff SpeakEzee event.
The first SpeakEzee event in Cardiff saw an eclectic mix of speakers covering topics from the psychology of online dating through to the philosophy of metaphysics and time-travel! Of particular interest was the talk “From Condiment to Drug” by Dr. Michael Graz from Neem Biotech; a fascinating talk on the development of drugs from natural products, specifically plants.
For thousands of years plants have been utilised for their medicinal properties. The ancient Egyptians used to take a daily tonic of garlic and honey for its apparent healing qualities, and ginger and cinnamon were commonly used to treat indigestion. Their use continues throughout history, with medieval Europeans believing that garlic protected against thieves as well as disease (though the former is more likely to be attributable to non-medicinal ‘side-effects’). The consistent use of certain plants has led to scientists tapping into these natural properties to discover and optimise modern medicine.
The primary goal of plants is to grow, therefore a large majority of their biology is dedicated to this function. However, they also have to respond to natural stresses and changes in the environment; for example the passing fancies of a mountain goat or the unpredictable British weather. As Michael so aptly put: “Plants can’t run away!” They don’t have the flight option of a ‘fight or flight’ response and so their defence mechanisms, in response to environmental stress, are primarily chemical. It is these chemical responses that scientists at Neem Biotech and elsewhere are utilising to develop novel treatments for a multitude of diseases.
The extraction of natural chemical compounds from plants has already unlocked a multitude of opportunities for naturally sourced pharmacological agents and has the potential for so much more. The challenge is identifying the precise stressors and conditions in which chemicals are produced and their specific medicinal properties. It is then equally important to develop innovative extraction, isolation and purification techniques to optimise their use.
Garlic-derived sulphur compounds have been found to elicit anti-bacterial, anti-thrombotic and anti-cancer effects (Ariga and Seki, 2006). Allicin is garlic’s natural defence to attacks from pests and is responsible for its iconic smell. When garlic is crushed or chopped, compartments within the plant cells are ruptured allowing the enzyme allinase to convert alliin to allicin. However, allicin is quite an unstable compound and is quickly broken down into other sulphur compounds.
The scientists at Neem Biotech are working on innovative extraction methods to isolate and stabilise the specific compounds for their medicinal properties and to understand the mechanisms through which they can maximise their production, with the intention of treating Pseudomonas infections in the lungs of cystic fibrosis sufferers.
The bitter compound galanthamine is present in the leaves and bulbs of all species of daffodil (though to varying extents), with its primary functions being to deter grazing animals and protect against microbial infection. In people it is known to inhibit the rate of break-down of acetylcholine; a chemical messenger with an important role in learning and memory (Hasselmo, 2006). It is currently being utilised for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. 1 in 20 people over the age of 65 and 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 will develop dementia. It is one of the main causes of disability in later life, ahead of cancer (Alzheimer’s Society, Dementia Report 2014).
Ten tonnes of daffodils are required to produce 1kg of galanthamine, so the optimisation of its production and extraction are vital for responding to the growing need for treatment. It was recently found that the altitude in which daffodils are grown affects the amount of galanthamine produced, with higher altitudes giving a much higher yield. In Wales this has led to fields of carefully selected daffodils being planted at 1400ft in the heart of the Black mountains, with the hope of yielding a commercially viable cost effective drug.
These are just two examples of the way plants are being used to produce potentially life changing medicines. Many other naturally occurring compounds are known to have desirable properties, such as those responsible for the anti-inflammatory action of ginger or anti-bacterial effects of cinnamon. By tapping in to plants’ immune systems we can support our own when the burden gets too much or disease interferes. Importantly, there is growing evidence of the role of the immune system and inflammation in the etiology of psychiatric illness (Dantzer et al., 2008; Khandaker et al., 2014; Mondelli et al., 2015). It now seems even more pertinent to look to these anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of natural compounds for novel treatment strategies and the general well-being of the population.
Eating a tonne of garlic or munching on some daffodils isn’t likely to cure your ailments (and probably won’t help you make friends). However, by understanding the complexity of compounds that nature uses to protect itself and developing sophisticated extraction and isolation methods, we can harbour the power of nature to advance our drugs of the future.
Ariga T, Seki T (2006) Antithrombotic and anticancer effects of garlic-derived sulfur compounds: A review. BioFactors 26:93–103.
Dantzer R, O’Connor JC, Freund GG, Johnson RW, Kelley KW (2008) From inflammation to sickness and depression: when the immune system subjugates the brain. Nat Rev Neurosci 9:46–56.
Hasselmo ME (2006) The Role of Acetylcholine in Learning and Memory. Curr Opin Neurobiol 16:710–715.
Khandaker G, Pearson R, Zammit S, Lewis G, Jones PB (2014) Association of Serum Interleukin 6 and C-Reactive Protein in Childhood With Depression and Psychosis in Young Adult Life. JAMA Psychiatry 71:1121–1128.
Mondelli V, Dazzan P, Pariante CM (2015) Immune abnormalities across psychiatric disorders: clinical relevance. BJPscyh Adv 21:150–156.