The Malaysian Rubber Board’s locally-cloned transgenic rubber trees are now yielding high value chemicals, leading to a promising pharmaceutical discovery.
RUBBER has proven to be a vital material during the Covid-19 pandemic – latex surgical gloves for one have been life-saving for the millions of crisis frontliners around the world, medical and non-medical alike.
But if you think rubber trees are grown just for their latex or rubber elastomer to manufacture tyres, gloves, condoms and other related products, think again.Malaysian Rubber Board (MRB) scientists are moving beyond this with attempts to shift its paradigm from supplier of “high volume, low value” commodities to one that produces fine chemicals of “low volume, high value”, and they are succeeding.
MRB deputy director-general (Research & Innovations) Dr Amir Hashim Md Yatim says the research is made possible by the MRB’s venture into the creation of transgenic rubber trees that produce pharmaceuticals in latex.
He says to date, MRB has successfully created transgenic rubber trees that harbour three different pharmaceutical genes namely:
(i) human atrial natriuretic factor – a peptide hormone that has blood pressure lowering activity,
(ii) human protamine 1 – a peptide that has blood clotting property, and
(iii) A recombinant antibody specific to the coat protein of Streptococcus gordonii, the bacteria that causes tooth decay.
“Transgenic rubber trees planted in MRB research station for a controlled field evaluation. You can say these trees are truly green pharmaceutical factories. MRB is a public R&D organization. We come up with findings and innovations that can be commercialized by private organisations on a contractual basis. We may not be blowing our own trumpet but we are making inroads, ” he tells Sunday Star in an interview.
He says the transgenic rubber trees, which he describes as MRB’s treasure, and any other genetically modified plants are subjected to biosafety regulations, adding that they are subject to a 20-year lease obtained from the National Biosafety Board. They are grown in a confined plot in our research station for research and development purposes only.
Dr Amir says one of his lead scientists, Dr E. Sunderasan who was working on the anti-cancer biochemicals from this latex serum extracted from conventional rubber trees a few years ago, was responsible for this breakthrough.
“When the cancer biochemicals that he found could not be continued for several reasons, it struck him that the results indicated that this compound of the rubber tree had chemical properties that could kill other viruses, ” he says.
Dr Sunderasan, who has worked extensively on latex proteins, is mindful that dengue fever is a disease that infects almost 400 million people worldwide every year and is Malaysia’s most prevalent infectious disease that needs urgent attention. So it struck him then that it would be worth a try.
He explains the results: “So far, the tests showed that the protein from this latex serum could wipe out all the dengue virus population the pre-infection stage. During the second stage of tests, we discovered that the serum prevented the virus from attaching itself to the host cells.
“In addition, the was able to halt the virus from injecting genetic material into the host cells. In layman’s terms this compound means that once in the bloodstream, the serum cannot infect the host cells. We were overjoyed, as this is promising.
“This is a significant milestone as we are only left with the final test in the preclinical stage of drug development. That is to see if the component can destroy the virus in living organisms like cells, ” he says.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the final phase of his discovery, which involves this specific clinical trial, will place MRB and Malaysia prominently on the global pharmaceutical map.
“I never thought I’d be doing what I am doing now – investigating the fine chemicals of the rubber tree to try and save lives, ” says the soft-spoken scientist, whose first brush with rubber was when he was about three years old and living in the rubber town of Baling, Kedah. But it wasn’t the tree or plantation that he came to know; rather, his friends in the nursery used to play games with rubber seeds.
Currently, Dr Sunderasan has applied for a RM300,000 grant from the MRB to complete the in vivo (on living organisms) test.
“Once successful, only then can it be patented to look at the possibility of establishing clinical trials on human beings and commercialising the finding.
“We pray that the final test will succeed and put MRB on the world pharmaceutical map, ” he says.
The scientist, who hails from Butterworth in mainland Penang, says he sought the help of scientists in Universiti Malaya to do a battery of in vitro tests as contract research at the laboratories there.
Dr Sunderasan says he started this research in 2015 when he was forced to call off the final stage of a preclinical investigation of a potential anti-cancer drug from latex serum.
While the drug effectively killed a few different cancer cells within two days, it was later found undesirable as it induced mutation in normal cells.
“It would have been too expensive to continue this research to find ways of stopping the mutation to make it safe for cancer treatment. I made some headway but I had to call it off, ” he tells.
If Dr Sunderasan and MRB succeed in this huge endeavour, it will add much value to latex via transgenic technology and other inherent fine chemicals. This would certainly uplift the mainstream rubber industry in Malaysia, says Dr Amir.
“The development of a cost-effective vaccine from our transgenic rubber tree would have a big impact as it would mean we can develop our own local vaccines to combat endemic diseases.
“This will mean we have the proverbial golden goose in our hands. We have many global innovative successes under our belt that have mainly been kept under wraps. But this will be a great success for MRB.”