Rare plant holds potential diabetes treatment

High in the mountains of Ecuador grows a rare shrub with purple flowers. If this species goes extinct, we’ll lose more than just a pretty plant. According to a new study, the shrub contains chemicals that could act as drugs for hepatitis C virus infections and diabetes.

Habitat loss, invasive species, and climate change are driving many plants to the brink, and about 20 percent of plant species are at risk of going extinct. While plants may not be as charismatic as polar bears or exotic birds, they’re a rich source of medicine. Chemical compounds from plants are used to treat everything from heart disease to Alzheimer’s.

The researchers studied the extract of a plant called Diplostephium rhododendroides Hieron., collected in Sarayo, Ecuador. Other species in that genus have yielded treatments for gastric pain, lung inflammation, and the common cold. The team found chemicals that appeared to combat the hepatitis C virus; another set of compounds inhibited a protein involved in diabetes mellitus that interferes with insulin signaling.

The hepatitis C virus kills about 12,000 Americans per year and accounts for roughly $10.7 billion in medical costs, the authors note. About 171 million people around the world are afflicted with diabetes mellitus, and that number could more than double in the next two decades. This plant species “represents a vital opportunity” to control two major health problems, the team writes in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and “strongly supports the value in protecting endangered and rare plants.” Roberta Kwok | 30 September 2013

Source: Ibrahim, M.A. et al. 2013. Significance of endangered and threatened plant natural products in the control of human disease. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi: 10.1073/pnas.1311528110.

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