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Herbal remedies may deliver anti-inflammatory drugs

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An Australian National University scientist is analysing herbal medicines in search of compounds that reduce potentially fatal inflammation in people suffering diseases such as influenza.

The research, by Lisa Alleva, of the School of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, could lead to drugs to treat the severe inflammation triggered by the body's natural immune response to invading viruses, bacteria and protozoan parasites.

Dangerous levels of inflammation are caused by the over-production of cytokines, molecules that stimulate other parts of the immune system in reaction to pathogens. "They're a double-edged sword," says Alleva. "They initiate protection but later they can cause pathology."

Alleva is to assay complementary and alternative medicines for compounds that damp "cytokine storms". She has been scrutinising the scientific literature and visiting herbalists in search of candidate compounds, saying it is important to "keep an open mind". She has already identified several traditional Chinese and Japanese remedies that look promising, and planned to begin in vitro screening in July 2008.

She will compare the results with tests on Gemfibrozil, a cholesterol-lowering drug that also works as an anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory agent. Alleva was part of a team led by Ian Clark, also of ANU, that demonstrated that the drug halved the level of mortality in mice with severe influenza.

Alleva says the focus on alternative and complementary medicine has an advantage over general assays on natural compounds as many of the remedies have effectively undergone clinical trials through hundreds of years of use. Such compounds are more likely to get through safety tests when the team seeks approval for any drugs it develops.

The three-year project, in collaboration with Clark, is being funded by a $289,000 research grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council.



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