IT has just been announced that scientists at Harvard University have uncovered a new potential cure for pancreatic cancer, one of the most challenging of all cancers. In the Harvard research, published in the journal Frontiers of Oncology on July 23, the researchers revealed that a chemical found in cannabis has demonstrated “significant therapy potential” in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.
Although cannabis is a banned drug, this has not stopped scientists from experimenting on it and exploring its potential as medicine.
I recently spoke to a local expert on our own ketum. His preliminary research has suggested many potential medicinal opportunities for ketum, which is banned in the country because of rampant abuse by addicts.
It is unfortunate that scientific research on ketum is not encouraged here. Apparently, there is already a product in the market based on ketum. The product called “kretum” comes from Germany and is widely sold in Thailand.
Are we not losing out on commercialising something which is indigenous to the country?
Cancer is a killer disease, but there are also survivors, thanks to the development of new cures. Investments in research and development (R&D) to explore new cure options continue. But the development of new cures can take years, if not decades, before the final products are endorsed for use.
Take Taxol, the drug now used for the treatment of breast, ovarian, lung, bladder, prostate, melanoma, oesophageal, as well as other types of solid tumour cancers, as an example.
This drug, which is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, took about 30 years to be finally approved for medical use. The company invested US$200mil for the entire development phase, but once approved, the immediate order for the drug was more than US$2bil! Now, the company makes about US$2bil in revenue annually.
I learnt this at a recent talk on the development of another new potential therapy. Apparently, according to the speaker, Datuk Dr Ghazally Ismail, a former colleague and classmate from the Malay College Kuala Kangsar days, recent research is providing some evidence that the hookworm may help to treat cancer. Himself an accomplished microbiologist, Professor Charlie, as he is affectionately known among his close acquaintances, has always been passionate about nature and what it offers for mankind.
He found out about the hookworm link after a review of the literature. Going by what has been researched so far, the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, an independent biomedical research institute associated with the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, has produced evidence of the potential that the humble hookworm offers.
The institute, which started with an initial donation from a New Zealand ice cream magnate, specialises in the immune system. About half of its activities are directed at cancer research. The institute has just announced that it is embarking on a clinical stage of the research on hookworms.
Using his usual charm, Ghazally has persuaded the institute to bring the study to Malaysia. This is because Malaysia offers the right ethnic diversity for a good clinical study.
Based on the current findings, those who are more exposed to the hookworm, as is often the case in the rural population, have a lower chance of getting cancer than those in the urban setting. The hygiene theory is proposed to explain the phenomenon. This will be tested in the current phase of the study.
As is usual in most research, there will be sceptics. But this new study will look in more detail at how it works. The plan is to have post-doctorate researchers undertake that task.
There is another reason why we are elated. Another of our former classmates has agreed to foot much of the bill for this next phase of the research. If more high net worth individuals can come forward to support such noble projects, we should all be excited.
In the global search for a cure for cancer, scientists are not discounting any potential even if it means investigating the most unlikely candidates.
It is time that we in Malaysia adopt a similar approach. We should not limit our research only to the obvious. And it is important that in the search for such cures, we must be willing to endure a long-term investment in R&D. Only then will we truly capture the potential of our wealth of natural resources.
PROFESSOR DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia
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