Unlocking the Secrets of an Ancient Chinese Herbal Medicine

unlockingNew research is unlocking the secrets of an ancient Chinese herbal medicine. Chang Shan has been used to treat malaria for thousands of years but studies now suggest the root extract may also be able to slow cancer, treat multiple sclerosis and reduce scarring.

Chang Shan is a root extract from a hydrangea found in Nepal and Tibet. Its active ingredient is febrifugine and it is this alkaloid that contains the anti-malarial properties that make Chang Shan so effective in treating malaria.

Now the findings of two separate research studies into exactly how febrifugine works may offer hope for treating other conditions. The Harvard School of Dental Medicine and an international team of researchers carried out the first study, while the Scripps Research Institute were involved in the second.

The Harvard study focused on understanding febrifugine’s molecular secrets, examining the molecular changes that occur through the compound halofuginone, which is derived from febrifugine. It is already known that halofuginone can stop the production of TH17 cells, harmful immune cells that are present in autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease.

The latest research found that halofuginone also slows down a key enzyme that makes proteins in the cells. Blocking this enzyme then initiates the stress-response pathway that restricts TH17 cells and other cells that cause inflammation. The team concluded that it is this ability of halofuginone that helps make febrifugine such a successful herbal remedy and further work into the compound could lead to more effective treatment for anti-inflammatory conditions.

Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute were interested in how halofuginone manages to block the enzyme that makes cell proteins, revealing that it uses what they describe as a “two-handed” grip to prevent the enzyme working properly. A molecule that allows the enzyme to function was also revealed to be crucial in allowing halofuginone to block the enzyme. The researchers suggested the structure of halofuginone at work would help in designing future drugs.

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