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An ancient Chinese medicine could help treat MS and diabetes

Seriously.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

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 the university commercialisation specialist Allied Minds and the US pharmaceuticals giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, is licensing research carried out by Professor Malcolm Whitman and Dr. Tracy Keller at Harvard from 2002 onward.

The pair found that the active ingredient in blue evergreen hydrangea root, called halofuginone, could block a type of rogue T-cell, and they 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 such as 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 said it wants 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 West in the 1940s, 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.”

Read: An Irish-backed company is making rhino horns to stop poaching

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