By Eulalee Thompson, Staff Reporter
UNIVERSITY OF the West Indies (UWI) scientists have isolated a chemical compound in a common Jamaican plant, Spirit Weed, which has tested as a potent anti-worm treatment in people and animals.
The potent agent, which the scientists are nicknaming eryngial, effectively treats threadworms (Strongyloides stercoralis), a very common intestinal worm in Jamaica and in other parts of the world, which is associated with ill-health and mortality.
"We already have some data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicating that the drug (the isolated compound) appears to be safe against mammalian tissues, in other words, the level of toxicity is low. This is good news because we wouldn't want to be creating a drug that acts against worms but is harmful in other ways," said Dr. Ralph Robinson, Head of Department of Life Sciences and one of the scientists involved in the discovery.
The scientists have received 'Letters Patent' as inventors of the new medical substance, the first successful patent application wholly undertaken and forwarded by the UWI's academic staff and research students. The invention met the patent criteria of being novel, unobvious and capable of application and was executed with assistance from the UWI's Office of Sponsored Research.
This local patent provides international protection of the invention for one year; the scientists have the option to take out other patents that offer 10 to 15 years protection.
Dr. Robinson, a parasitologist, started the research on Spirit Weed (Eryngium foetidum) about 10 years ago, in 1992, as he supervised a graduate student, Dr. Wayne Forbes in his PhD thesis. Dr. Forbes, currently a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Pennsylvannia, School of Veterinary Science, had developed an interest in the medicinal properties of Jamaican herbs.
Though Dr. Robinson's speciality is parasitology, he worked with his graduate student for years, screening extracts of about 25 medicinal plants which had earned reputations in Jamaican folklore as effective anti-worm concoctions. Spirit Weed came up the winner, acting against threadworms, the test organism in the research project.
The third scientist involved in the research, Professor Paul Reese from the Department of Chemistry, was asked to join the team when the two researchers decided to move from crude analysis to more refined chemical analysis using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) technology in the chemistry laboratory.
Dr. Reese said that eryngial, under controlled laboratory studies, is proving to be more potent as an anti-threadworm agent than the commercially-available anti-worm medicines. With more funding the scientists would like to take the research to the next stage -- to investigate the mode of activity of the active ingredient, that is, to identify how it acts against the threadworms. They will also have to involve, down the line, medical scientists to identify safe and effective concentration and dosage levels before the medicine can become commercially available.