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Company Searches World Over to Discover New Drugs

Medicine: Firm finds that Great Britain's cosmopolitan makeup offers access to traditional, natural remedies from around the globe.

August 12, 1996|From Reuters

LONDON — At first glance, the barren steppes of Mongolia and the steamy jungles of the Amazon seem to have little to offer modern medicine when compared with the West's high-tech research laboratories.

But one British firm is making an unlikely success out of shunning the latter in favor of trawling the world's remotest areas in search of new drugs.

Phytopharm Plc has created so much interest with its exploration of traditional herbal medicines that the group went public on the London Stock Exchange last week in a move that raised $18 million.

"We are a very unusual firm, because what we do is very unusual," Phytopharm Chief Executive Richard Dixey said.

Dixey avoids the term pharmaceutical as being too far removed from the firm's work with natural plant-based remedies.

"We are the first herbiceutical company to come out to the market," he said.

The firm's lead product is a treatment for the skin disease eczema called Zemaphyte, currently in Phase III clinical trials--the last stage before a product hits the market.

The drug has its roots in traditional Chinese medicine, but Dixey is quick to distance himself from images of intrepid Phytopharm scientists scouring the globe, machete in one hand and collecting jar in the other.

"Traveling around the world like Crocodile Dundee is a very nice image, but it is not what we do," he said.

In fact, Zemaphyte was not discovered in remotest China, but in a back street close to London's infamous Soho red light district.

Two consultants tipped off the firm that their eczema patients were making a strong recovery--but only after taking an obscure Chinese herbal recipe.

The recipe was eventually traced to the Hong Ning Co. clinic on the fringes of London's Chinatown. The clinic is run by Dr. Ding Hui Lou, a graduate of Guangzhou University in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Deals were soon struck and Zemaphyte was born.

Most of Phytopharm's hunting is in Britain. "Britain is very cosmopolitan and also an established center of medical excellence. It is a very good place to be fishing for new medicines," Dixey said.

However, as the firm grows, setting up a network of drug hunters abroad may yet become a reality. "We need people out there in the developing world who will be our eyes," he said.

The group is already embarking on some foreign explorations. Phytopharm staff have traveled four times to China and another trip is planned in the next few weeks.

Dixey himself has been to Mongolia to research a rare herb used in traditional Mongolian medicine to treat asthma.

But such trips to far-flung, underdeveloped places are fraught with problems.

The herb only grows on the higher slopes of the Altai mountains and the nomadic horse-based society of rural Mongolia, plus political problems, made it difficult to get the herb out. "We may still go back and try again," Dixey said.

While most biotech groups locate promising molecules and try to turn them into useful drugs, Phytopharm works the other way round, only taking on projects that have proven effectiveness.

"Biotech firms look to see if their product works. We already know our product works, we just have to work out why," he said. The approach cuts both risk and research costs.

Dixey believes the future will hold more discoveries as the use of traditional medicines remains strong across the Far East, South America and Africa. A new treatment for diabetes based on an African herb already looks very promising, he said.

"We have a lot of other things in the pipeline," he added.

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