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Tuesday December 14, 2010

Leukaemia inhibitor from tree extract can help fight cancer

KUCHING: A compound from the Aglaia foveolata tree, found in Sarawak’s highlands, has entered pre-clinical trials, showing positive results in inhibiting the growth of some forms of cancer like leukaemia.

According to scientists at the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC), which owns the intellectual property rights to the plant, experiments found an extracted compound called Silvestrol offered benefits not found in other cancer-fighting drugs.

“First, it seems to inhibit leukaemia growth compared with controlled tests performed on mice. Second, the tests show that it seems to bypass drug resistance,” said Dr Yeo Tiong Chia, senior research officer at the centre.

Dr Yeo, a graduate of the Washington University in immunology, said he was confident of the compound’s potential.

Medical marvel: Dr Rita with a model of the molecular structure of Silvestrol, the compound extracted from the Aglaia foveolata trees, at the SBC’s open day. In the background are the trees, which are found in Sarawak’s highlands.

He added that if tests continued to be positive, then the next step would be to conduct clinical trials on humans.

However, as with all experiments, he added, outcomes were hard to predict and could go either way.

Dr Yeo was speaking to The Star during SBC’s annual open day at its headquarters near Padawan, here.

Meanwhile, SBC chief executive Dr Rita Manurung said the centre needed funds to speed up research.

She said the centre had submitted a development proposal of RM5mil to both state and federal governments.

The development included expanding its chemistry labs and having better facilities to attract more visiting scientists.

Dr Rita explained the urgent need for funds.

“Intellectual property rights are not forever. At SBC, we hold just one right, which is for the Aglaia plant.

“We acquired that right in 2004, but such rights usually expire after 15 to 20 years. As such, all research must be speeded up,” she said.

Another important role of the centre is documenting indigenous vegetation, with focus on those that have medical qualities not yet known to the scientific community.

The programme has been ongoing for almost a decade, with about 3,000 plants documented.