Developing traditional medicine in today's modern world

  • People
  • Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Bioscientist Dr Amin Shah Malik Abdul Majid is changing the way people view traditional medicine.   

The hurdle-filled journey of one bioscience pioneer started seven years ago. Amin Shah Malik Abdul Majid had just returned to Penang after getting his PhD at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

There, his work involved designing synthetic drugs with reduced side effects for use in chemotherapy.

Standard chemotherapy drugs don’t tend to solve core problems, however; they attack the cancer, but don’t necessarily address the underlying biology that leads to it.

The same applied to the drugs Amin was working on in Australia, but his line of inquiry did involve a novel approach: instead of targeting tumour cells directly, it involved starving them.

“To grow large, cancer needs nourishment,” he explains in a phone interview. “Oxygen and nutrients must be acquired through new blood vessels.” (A process known as angiogenesis.)

Cancer therapies targeting this pathway had emerged fairly recently as a complement to conventional chemotherapy drugs.

But they are pricey. Developing synthetic drugs is an expensive business, with costs generally running into billions of ringgit.

Read for the hard slog: Dr Amin Malik Shah Abdul Majid posing with misai kuching plants in a herbal garden in USM, Penang. - GARY CHEN/The Star
Dr Amin Malik Shah Abdul Majid posing with misai kuching plants in a herbal garden in USM, Penang. – GARY CHEN/The Star

So when Amin started his new job at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, he decided to move in a new direction.

“It is known that taking high amounts of antioxidants and herbs can be associated with a reduced likelihood of cancer, so I decided to investigate the potential for herbal compounds in anti-angiogenesis.” he explains.

With all his experience in synthetic drugs, investigating plants would require a new skillset.

So he packed his bags and headed back to Australia, hooking up with scientists at the John Curtin School of Medical Sciences at Australia National University to learn all about 3D tissue culture screening.

The cat’s meow

He used the technology and put a stack of Malaysian herbs to the test.

One plant stood out: misai kucing (“cat’s whiskers”), a herb traditionally used by the Malays and widely grown in tropical areas.

Standardised extracts from misai kucing were found to inhibit angiogenesis and tumour growth – at least in a petri dish, Amin says.

The fact that the plant is fairly common and easy to grow also gave it potential to be harvested on a commercial scale.

Colleagues in Australia were not confident he would find investors willing to take a herbal extract-based drug through clinical trials, and on to commercialisation. Intellectual property rights and natural products are a complicated mix, they told him.

Amin decided to cross that bridge later, choosing to put hypothetical concerns aside for the time being.

He returned home feeling excited. Now that he had verified the plant’s anti-angiogenic activity, the next thing to do was figure out the mechanisms behind it.

He turned to Dr Habibah Wahab, with whom he had collaborated on a project some years earlier, to pinpoint the molecular targets for the plant’s active compounds (those responsible for biological activity of therapeutic interest).

Dr Habibah, who now heads the Malaysian Institute of Pharmaceuticals and Neutraceuticals (iPharm), is an expert in computer-aided drug design and pharmaceutical formulation.

Amin was especially interested in compounds with a molecular structure that targeted a key receptor in the angiogenesis pathway.

They screened USM’s comprehensive plant database, and guess which plant compounds showed up as a match? Those found in bitter melon, nutmeg, and ... you guessed it, misai kucing.

For Amin, this verified his findings in Australia. Many more tests, experiments and research lay ahead.

Amin, who grew up in Penang before spending almost two decades of his life abroad, finally felt that this could be it – an anti-cancer drug developed from a Malaysian plant, on Malaysian soil. When he was a kid, he had wanted to be an electrical engineer. Then his aunt died of breast cancer, and that sparked a change in his chosen career path.

This was early stages – too early to actually be jumping for joy just yet – but he was ready for the slog ahead.

Hurdles all the way

Amin estimated it would cost about RM70mil to get his product through clinical trials and eventually to market.

Being an academic with zero business experience, he jumped at the chance when opportunities to develop his business sense arose.

The first thing he did with his new skillset was to register his chosen trademark, “Canssufive” – a play on the words “can survive”.

The next step was to pitch his business plan, and reign in the venture capitalists.

Alas, nobody was interested.

Specially-bred mice at Amin's laboratory for use during preclinical tests of the misai kuching extract on animal subjects.
Specially-bred mice at Amin's laboratory for use during preclinical tests of the misai kuching extract on animal subjects.

Starting a bioscience company is hard – that’s one of the first things he learned in a Global Bio-Entrepreneurship Course funded by the Malaysia Biotech Corporation.

It’s a heavily-regulated, capital-intensive sector and investors are becoming increasingly difficult to find.

In Malaysia especially, there tends to be a low level of investment in research and development in small and medium enterprises.

Convinced no one would fund such a new area of research, he decided to form his own company, Natureceuticals Sdn Bhd.

He entered into a collaboration with another local company, Asmana Sdn Bhd, and acquired an exclusive license for Canssufive from USM.

At the time, Malaysia’s Economic Transformation Programme was announced and herbal product development happened to be an Entry Point Project under its National Key Economic Area of Agriculture.

Amin approached the Herbal Development Office and Natureceuticals was awarded “anchor company” status, entitling him to receive government support to help spearhead this area of development.

To date, RM8mil from the Agriculture Ministry and about RM3mil in personal finances have gone into developing Canssufive – peanuts compared to the billions that conventional drug development can run into, but a huge leap ahead for the project.

In total, the ministry has said it will fork out RM64.8mil in funding for the project by 2020. This includes RM30mil for the manufacturing facility and RM1mil for a specialised farm to grow the misai kucing.

Two products are currently undergoing clinical trials: an effervescent health drink aimed at providing relief for cancer-induced aesthenia; and a disease risk-reduction drug with anti-angiogenic claims.

Amin says it will be at least 2017 before trials are completed. That’s if everything goes smoothly.

And until he publishes his findings in a journal, and the results are replicated in another lab, the jury will be out. For now, he is holding off submissions for any scientific papers. There are patents pending, and until that is settled, he will wait.

Either way, as far as individual efforts go, Amin is a bit of an exception to the Malaysian rule. Time will tell if he manages to break the mould and come up with a high-claim drug based on a herbal extract. One thing’s for sure: if he manages it, it will be a milestone for Malaysia.

Related story: 

Mining for bio-billion$

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