Gorilla Staple Adds Spice to New Drugs

By Cheryl Lyn Dybas
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 27, 2006

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- A clear vial filled with amber fluid rests on scientist Ilya Raskin's desk, glinting in the autumn sunlight streaming through his office window. The container, a small glass bottle with a plain white screw-top, contains a substance Raskin calls 006. "Double-zero-six" is potentially more precious than the rarest topaz.

Raskin is a biochemist at Rutgers University's Biotechnology Center. The golden liquid on his desk may prove to be one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory substances ever discovered. "It contains a derivative of a plant known as grains of paradise, or Aframomum melegueta, a member of the ginger family," said Raskin. The compound works in a similar way to the well-known anti-inflammatory drugs Vioxx, Celebrex and Bextra but, it is hoped, without their side effects, said Raskin and other scientists.

Aframomum is not easy to come by. It grows in just one place: the vine-choked swampy lowlands of West Africa's Grain Coast. Stretching from Sherbro Island in Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas in Liberia, this rain-drenched, humid land is named for its abundant grains of paradise.

Outside Africa, Aframomum is usually available only as a hard-to-find spice. For their experiments, Raskin and colleagues hire African botanists to inspect the seeds and ship them to the United States.

Raskin first became interested in Aframomum during an international effort to search for medicines from plants. "Aframomum contains compounds called gingerols, which are chemically similar to other anti-inflammatory compounds," he said. "That's what initially drew our attention to the plant, and was confirmed in the lab."

Plant-derived drugs are hardly new: aspirin, for example, is a synthetic version of a natural substance found in willow bark, and the heart medication digitalis is made from the foxglove plant.

Humans may not be the only creatures that use Aframomum to treat inflammation and infection, said primatologist Michael Huffman of Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute in Japan. He said studies have shown that Western lowland gorillas in Africa prefer Aframomum shoots and seedpods to other foods.

In zoos, the absence of Aframomum and other African plants in the feed given to captive Western lowland gorillas may be a factor in an unexplained heart condition many have developed, say Ellen Dierenfeld, staff nutritionist of the St. Louis Zoo, and Melissa Remis, a primatologist at Purdue University.

"Western lowland gorillas in captivity aren't fed African plants," Dierenfeld said. "We need to look very closely at this aspect of their health to see if there's a link among diet, inflammation or infection, and heart disease."

For humans afflicted with inflammatory diseases, scientists are taking their cue from native African healers, who have used Aframomum for centuries to treat infections of all kinds, said biochemist Christopher Okunji of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"In the West African culture in which I was raised," Okunji said, "Aframomum is an important part of daily life. For example, when a visitor arrives at someone's home, no discussion begins until all partake of Aframomum seeds. People far back in African history likely knew that Aframomum was a good thing to eat if you didn't want to get sick."

Okunji's research has shown that one species of Aframomum has significant antimicrobial activity in laboratory tests. In a published study involving cell cultures, Okunji showed that the plant works against the microbe responsible for a hard-to-treat infection, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA, which has reached epidemic levels in some hospitals and other confined places, is impervious to every penicillin-like antibiotic now available.

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