[KOLKATA] Scientists at the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology (IICB) in Kolkata claim to have discovered a potential cure for a form of leukaemia in the common betel leaf. Locally known as paan, the leaf is widely chewed as an aid to digestion.
"Our research is a breakthrough in the sense that this is the first time a molecule from a plant has specifically destroyed cancerous cells without producing any harmful effect on normal cells," says Samir Bhattacharya, IICB director.
The researchers discovered the substance in the leaves of the betel plant (Piper betel) while studying the medical potential of various herbal remedies used in India.
The compound, known as chlorogenic acid, kills cancerous cells in chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) but leaves non-cancerous cells unharmed, according to researcher Santu Banerjee. This form of cancer attacks white blood cells.
Following the discovery, experiments were conducted using the compound on cancer cells obtained from Europe, Japan and the United States. Next, in collaboration with medical institutes, blood cells from patients with chronic leukaemia were treated with it. In all the studies, the cancerous cells were totally destroyed. Studies using live mice with CML also demonstrated a complete success.
The IICB is in talks with the Indian Council for Medical Research about clinical trials on humans. "Hopefully, these will be possible in the near future," says Bhattacharya.
Concerns have been raised in the past about potential health risks associated with paan-chewing, specifically oral cancer. But Bhattacharya says that the link has not been proved conclusively by any study, though there are some studies showing adverse effects of the betel nut, which is usually chewed together with the paan leaves. But those studies have not been based on animal experiments, according to Bhattacharya.
If proven effective, this discovery could lead to an affordable treatment for leukaemia patients, especially in poorer countries, as betel plants grow abundantly in South Asia. Currently, the drug of choice for treating CML is Gleevec, manufactured by the multinational Novartis.
The research, which ran for more than three years, has been accepted for publication in Blood, the international journal of the Haematological Society of America.