Pharmagenesis Inc. is drawing from ancient Asian medicine in aneffort to remedy today's autoimmune diseases.The company is expanding its study of natural plant products of Asiantraditional medicine with the creation of a new division in Montana,called EcoPharm.Pharmagenesis, of Palo Alto, Calif., focuses on the evaluation of plantsthat have been selected over centuries to treat human diseases.EcoPharm will concentrate on drug-discovery through plant-associatedbacteria and fungi, or microflora, which reside within plant tissues."It made sense to us that plants resist invading pathogens in partthrough the production of antimicrobial compounds," Nathan Pliam,director of exploratory research at Pharmagenesis, told BioWorld. "Insome cases these compounds may be the product of the plant'sassociated microflora. By looking at certain plants, we hope to findadditional novel antimicrobial compounds. Our preliminary worksuggests this will be the case."The location of the facility in Bozeman, Mont., was mostly madebecause it provides easy access to Gary Strobel, professor of plantpathology at Montana State University (MSU) and chief consultant forPharmagenesis. Another reason is that the university plans to constructa facility for the quarantine of imported plants, the only one in the U.S.that won't be under federal control, Pliam said.Vincent Miller, a plant pathologist trained at MSU, is managingPharmagenesis' Bozeman operation. He told BioWorld that studyingthe microflora instead of the plant offers a number of advantages,including the fact that it can be fermented. Another is that the plantdoesn't have to be destroyed, which is helpful in species that arelimited. And, he said, there's much higher biodiversity involved."Already, out of a single plant, we obtained 100 different fungi and anumber of bacteria," Miller said. "Most of these are novel organismsthat haven't been studied in detail. We have indications that 20 to 50percent of these microbes have bioactivity in either altering immuneresponses or as anti-infective agents."As to [whether or not] they're going to be therapeutically useful,there's a long way to go. But at least we have leads to go on."As well as making discoveries by isolating, culturing and evaluatingmicroorganisms associated with certain medicinal plants, EcoPharmseeks compounds by looking at the interaction of certain plants andtheir environment.For example, the company said, a Pseudomonas bacterium associatedwith lilac produces the antifungal agent, Syringomycin. Thecompound, which protects its host plant, may prove useful as a leadcompound for developing human antifungal treatments.Strobel and co-workers discovered in 1992 that Taxol, an anticancerplant extracted from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree, was produced bya fungi associated with the tree. That led company officials to believethat Taxol may be able to be produced through commercialfermentation.Pharmagenesis, on the other hand, looks at the plants, particularly onesthat have been used in Asian traditional medicines. That provides alead-directed rather than random approach to screening, Pliam said."We do extensive studies to understand the clinical-use patterns ofthese plant materials," he said. "Then we test them in the appropriatebiological assays. Once we confirm there is biological activityconsistent with human clinical use, we start to chemically separate thecomponents."Mostly, Pliam said, the company works on immunomodulation. Hesaid Pharmagenesis anticipates its first clinical trial to take place nextyear.`It's wonderfully interesting," Pliam said. "There's much to be gainedby this approach. It's a tough one, though, because the patterns are notreadily apparent to the Western scientist of physician."Pharmagenesis, a privately held company founded in 1990, plans tobuild clinical development and sales and marketing organizations inAsia in the next few years. It also plans to begin construction of a GoodManufacturing Practices pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in China,as well as to in-license, import and commercialize novel Westernpharmaceuticals for sale in parts of Asia. n

-- Jim Shrine

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