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[KUALA LUMPUR] A Malaysian research centre and a leading US university are joining forces to speed up the development and commercialisation of a promising anti-cancer agent derived from a tropical tree.

If trials are successful, the royalties from the sales of the new drugs derived from the agent could provide crucial funds for the Malaysian institute and the country.

The agent, silvestrol, is a natural compound derived from the twigs, fruit and bark of the Aglaia species of tree, found in central Borneo, Indonesia, Malaysia and some Pacific islands.

It has been used as a traditional medicine in Malaysia for many years, usually to treat digestive disorders, but never as a cancer therapy.

Researchers from Ohio State University, who have been working on silvestrol since 2004, discovered that silvestrol kills cancer cells in mice, possibly paving the way to treatment for human cancers in the near future.  

Alan Douglas Kinghorn, a senior researcher at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, and leading silvestrol specialist, who gave the compound its name, says silvestrol has shown "very good initial results in models of B-cell malignancies, such as acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and mantle cell lymphoma".

Silvestrol was also found to inhibit the growth of lung, breast and prostate cancer cells, and appears to cause no damage to normal immune system cells — a common problem with current cancer treatments for leukaemia.

Kinghorn explained that silvestrol acts as a "translation inhibitor", meaning it interferes with cancer cell multiplication. "This works in cancer cells by slowing their growth by disrupting processes that lead to the generation of new proteins," he explained.

The team are currently doing tests on animals and models, and hope to start clinical trials in humans in three to four years.

To expedite further research and development of silvestrol, the State of Ohio signed an agreement with the Malaysian-run Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC), giving the university the rights to SBC's patent on silvestrol.  

The centre will provide the raw plant materials to Ohio State University, which has state-of–the-art facilities for biological testing. The understanding is that upon the completion of successful clinical trials and commercialisation, SBC will get a share of the royalties.

"In order to investigate the potential of silvestrol further, a key requirement is to perform preclinical toxicology, which will require several grams of the compound being purified," Kinghorn told SciDev.Net.

"The most rapid way to obtain such quantities of the compound is through scaled up isolation from Aglaia stellatopilosa collected in Sarawak [Malaysia]," he explained.

SBC's chief operating officer, Rita Manurung, said the centre "is also investigating other leads to maximise silvestrol yields and identify potential new agents that might be useful for the semi-synthetic production of silvestrol".

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia desk.