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Local shrub now top candidate for new cancer drug

By Gatonye Gathura - Mar 23rd 2019

A team of local and foreign scientists has found extracts from a tree that can kill several cancers, some which are already resistant to available medications. The shrub, scientifically known as Ormocarpum kirkii, or mkitaji in Swahili grows in most parts of the country and is used traditionally for medicinal purposes.

The extracts from the roots, stem and bark were tested against seven types of cancers. So far the results published in the May 2019 issue of the journal Pytomedicine say chemical compounds from the tree were effective against liver, breast and brain cancers.

The team from the University of Nairobi, Johannes Gutenberg University, Germany, University of Potsdam, Germany, Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and University of Dschang, Cameroon, declared this a top candidate for the development of new cancer drugs.

“Two compounds from the tree deserve further work to develop new anti-cancer drugs to fight sensitive and resistant cancer cell lines,” says the study. The active ingredients under study were within the compounds known as isoflavones and biflavonoids isolated from the tree and have capacity to treat multiple cancers as well as tumours that have become resistant to current medicines.

Also known as chitadzi or kitadzi among the Digo of the Coast, it is said to have magical properties. An infusion of the leaves is sprinkled around the house and in the doorway to keep out intruders.

Ash of this plant is rubbed into cuts or blisters to reduce swelling. It is also used in treating allergic conditions. Roots are used for rheumatism and stomach problems.

The bush now joins more than 20 local plant sources confirmed scientifically in the last three years to have potential to treat various cancers. During the annual scientific Kemri conference in 2017, researchers confirmed testing about 20 local plant species and finding them effective against some of the top killer cancers affecting Kenyans.

The scientists from various local universities collaborating with Kemri described how they had hunted down, studied and confirmed in laboratories that plant extracts hold effective treatments even to the most deadly cancers. The tested plant extracts were found to be effective against prostate, breast, lung, blood and cervical cancers.

Even when tested against the drug Tamoxifen, key in breast cancer treatment, some local herbs were found to stand their ground well.

But just like in the current study, Kemri researchers in 2017 had promised that much more work needed to be done to develop treatment drugs.

However, no further progress or product development has been reported since then. The national government recently expressed concerns over what it described as lack of movement from laboratory research to product development despite substantial financial investments in medical research.

Poor impact

“Health research in Kenya is characterised with low levels of return on investment and poor impact on health standards,” the Health Sector Working Group of the Ministry of Health says in its 2018 report to the National Treasury. But in her defence, Kemri blames the government for stifling them of funding.

In an interview with the local media in August, head of the Centre for Traditional Medicine and Drug Research, Dr Peter Mwitari says they have done necessary laboratory work but lack funds to turn this into products and services.

For example, he explains the centre requested for Sh14 million for the development of three medical products but received only Sh3.9 million that for an assortment of uses.

“We have carried out research showing the herbs have potential as described, hence the need to move to the next level of product development. The public needs to enjoy the fruit of the taxes they pay, which fund us,” says Dr Mwitari.

For Kemri, explained another researcher at the centre, Dr Festus Tolo said their work ends after piloting with no prospects of industrial production.

The researchers also argued that the centre lacked up to date drug development facilities, having to depend on technologies of the 1980s.

But herbalists say the government’s approach to herbal medicine is wrong. “We do not need to turn herbal medicines into complicated conventional drugs but apply them the closest we can in their natural form,” says James Njoroge, a herbal practitioner with Almed Health Products in Nairobi.

“The government needs to support herbalists streamline delivery, safety, hygiene, storage, legislation and standards like happens in India and China,” says Njoroge.

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