Extracted from The Star 14 September 2004
THE Malays call it pokok Dukung Anak. They believe drinking the juice of the plant (including its roots) can cure, among others, yellow fever, anaemia, asthma, dysentery and to a certain extent, diabetes.
While its effectiveness in curing these ailments has yet to be proven, one thing for sure is that the plant, which goes by the scientific name of phyllanthus niruri, can indeed cure Hepatitis-B.
Herbal pharmaceutical company Nova Laboratories Sdn Bhd (NovaLab) has invested more than RM3 million for a seven-year research on the plant. It recently received approval from the Health Ministry to undertake clinical trials on its product called Hepar-P pills.
It was reported over the weekend that Selayang Hospital in Selangor was going to conduct clinical trials on the herb on 20 patients with liver ailments.
"Yes, we received the approval from the Health Ministry's ethics committee to run clinical trials on our Hepar-P pills at the hospital next month," confirms managing director Phang Nyie Lin.
"If everything goes as planned, we (Malaysia) should be the first in the world to find a cure for Hepatitis-B," Phang, who is a pharmacist by training, told Business Times.
And it is going to translate into big business for NovaLab. It expects the Hepatitis-B medical pills to generate RM80 million sales by the end of 2006.
"Based on the potential Hepatitis-B carrier population in the world, we estimate that 2 per cent of the carriers will buy our Hepar-P pills in these two years. That's about RM50 million in domestic sales and RM30 million for exports," he said.
Established 15 years ago, NovaLab's focus lies in researching, the medicinal value of indigenous herbs.
It undertook research on the phyllanthus niruri for seven years and found that it contains anti-Hepatitis-B properties.
"It is considered a liver protective agent. The phyllanthus herb is also believed to be effective against toxicity caused by alcohol and drugs."
The 49-year-old medicine man said he began research on the herb in 1997, two years after his brother-in-law, who was diagnosed with Hepatitis-B, was cured after taking the phyllantus-based extract.
"At that time, not many have heard of the benefits ofphyllantus niruri. When I watched my brother-in-law becoming seriously ill, I decided to seek the advice of a doctor friend. He recommended a phyllantus-based extract which he has brought in from India.
"We were worried of the effects of the experimental medicine but my brother-in-law took it. Within a month, his blood was tested negative of the hepatitis virus. The doctors and nurses at the hospital were baffled," Phang said.
NovaLab plants its own pokok Dukung Anak on a 6ha site located just a 30-minute ride away from its office at Sg Pelek in Sepang.
The phyllanthus herb grows best on peat soil and takes 2Vz months to grow up to 2ft.
The company's modest double-storey building is surrounded by oil palm trees. An adjoining two-storey wooden building houses more than 1,000 white mice, rats and rabbits, which are bred for testing purposes.
NovaLab conducts its own clinical trials on these test animals on a variety of its medicine.
By end-2005, Phang said the clinical trials will be conducted on monkeys.
"They are the closest biological link to humans.
"Nobody likes to use animals for experimental purposes but we have to do it because of the requirements imposed by the health authorities," he said.
He said his biggest challenge was to seek financing for research on the medicine. Finally, he was able to get help from his friends at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang to fund the experiments on the pokok Dukung Anak.
"For the herbal biotech industry to flourish, the Government must ensure that the local universities are in tune with the 'seed to pill' concept. That way, researchers are driven to commercialise their work for the consumers' benefit," Phang said.
Six months ago, NovaLab applied for a RM4 million grant from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to undertake the clinical trials of its Hepar-P pills, which is estimated to run for a few years.