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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, December 14, 2001

Samoa plant may fight AIDS

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Ake Lilo of Samoa demonstrates how to work with Homalanthus nutans, which could yield treatment for HIV.


The bark of a Samoan medicinal plant could yield a treatment for AIDS and profits for the people of native plant's home community.

It is the first such arrangement ever agreed to by the pharmaceutical community and was set up by the director of the Kaua'i-headquartered National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Under an agreement signed yesterday, the AIDS ReSearch Alliance agreed that 20 percent of any revenues from the drug prostratin will benefit the nation of Samoa, the village where the plant was found and the families of the two native healers who led a researcher to it.

Paul Alan Cox, an ethnobotanist and the director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, was led by Samoan healers to the plant they used to treat hepatitis.

It is called Homalanthus nutans, a relative of poinsettia and cassava.

Its bark is used to isolate the drug prostratin. Preliminary research suggests the drug prevents the human immunodeficiency virus from reproducing, and may reactivate dormant HIV in cells, making it recognizable to the immune system and susceptible to other HIV drugs.

Cox promised the Samoan community where he conducted his research that they would share in any economic benefits of his research.

"Too often in the past, the role of a country's indigenous people has not been recognized in the drug discovery process," Cox said. "It was to address that issue that the Samoan chiefs and I agreed — before I began my research that the village should share in any success."

AIDS ReSearch Alliance, a nonprofit research institution, licensed the drug from the National Cancer Institute and agreed to share any profits with Samoa.

Cox said that 5 percent of any commercial revenues go to the National Cancer Institute, but 20 percent go to the government of Samoa, the village on the island of Savaii where the plants were discovered, and to the families of the traditional healers who led Cox to the plant.

"This drug would never have been discovered had not two elderly women in their 80s told me about the plant," Cox said.

Both women have since died.

Preliminary research suggests that prostratin has two features that make it valuable to AIDS work: it appears to inhibit the replication of the AIDS virus, and it may activate dormant human immunodeficiency virus in the body, so that it can be attacked by the immune system and drugs.

Prostratin is still years from being made available through prescription.

The National Cancer Institute, the AIDS ReSearch Alliance and several universities have conducted research on the drug. Those laboratory tests are preliminary to tests on animals and ultimately humans.

Irl Barefield, executive director of the AIDS ReSearch Alliance, said trials using monkeys are under way now, and he hopes the drug can begin to be tested on humans within a year.

His organization's main focus is AIDS and HIV research, but it is also possible the drug has wider application as an antiviral agent, Barefield said.

Cox is promoting the study of traditional medicine as a way of identifying more medically valuable products unknown to Western medicine.

"The knowledge of indigenous people is vanishing" and youths today, in their desire to be Westernized, often are not studying the areas of expertise of their elders, he said.

Hans Keil, Samoa's minister of trade and tourism, said the agreement to share possible profits is important beyond Samoa, the island nation near American Samoa that previously was known as Western Samoa.

"This is a breakthrough — a plus for the indigenous cultures around the world," Keil said.

The National Tropical Botanical Garden, which its headquarters overlooking its main garden at Lawa'i Valley on Kaua'i's southern coast, annually holds a masters course for doctors and other specialists in the study of traditional medicine.

A quarter of all prescription medicines come from plants, Cox said, and the vast majority of plants have never been tested for their medicinal potential.

"There has been very little done on any plants," and in Hawai'i nearly half the native plants are already either extinct or threatened, he said.