Developing anti-cancer drugs from medicinal plants

The American University of Beirut-Nature Conservation Center (AUB-NCC) has established a scientific collaboration with Hikma Pharmaceuticals to pioneer anti-cancer drugs from medicinal plants.

Led by Biochemistry Professor Nadine Darwiche from the Faculty of Medicine, the interdisciplinary team that will study medicinal plants draws on the expertise of AUB-NCC members by incorporating advances in chemistry, nanotechnology, and anti-cancer studies.

In addition to financial support, Hikma will help catapult these new drug candidates from the AUB laboratories to the market, thus making them accessible to the general public.

"We are very excited that the results of our research will be applied to develop drugs that will potentially reach the market," said Darwiche. "It is crucial that basic academic research be turned into applied science so that many people?s lives could be improved."

The medicinal plants being studied by the AUB team were chosen after scouring folk medicine archives and identifying the most well-known 29 medicinal plants in Lebanon. This list was narrowed down to two really promising plant species with anti-cancer properties, Akhilia zat al-alf waraqah (scientific name: Achillea falcate) and Shawk al-dardar (scientific name: Centauria ainetensis), commonly known as yarrow and knapweed, respectively.

"We have studied these two plants and found them to be really effective against colon cancer and skin cancer," said Darwiche. "They also show promising effects on leukemia and breast cancer."

The AUB team has already published several papers on the plants' medicinal effect on colon and skin cancer between 2008 and 2013 in prestigious journals such as BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, European Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, International Journal of Oncology, and Journal of Natural Medicine.

"The first phase of the research was to identify plants with anti-cancer properties and isolate and identify the plant molecules responsible for these properties. The next step is to turn them into drugs and produce them commercially," explained Darwiche. "It takes 10 years and probably one billion dollars to move a drug from the lab to the clinic. That?s why we have partnered with Hikma, since we, as researchers, cannot do that alone."

In order to ensure that these life-saving drugs have maximum effectiveness, researchers need to understand the chemistry behind them, noted Associate Professor Tarek Ghaddar from the Department of Chemistry and one of the co-investigators on this project.

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