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Chinese medicine plant may lead to anticancer drug

Traditional Chinese medicinal plants are used for a lot of maladies, but researchers at Johns Hopkins say one could serve as a starting point for development of new anticancer drugs.

The researchers found that a natural product isolated from a plant known as thunder god vine, or lei gong teng, and used to treat maladies including rheumatoid arthritis, works by blocking gene control machinery in the cell.

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Their report was published in the March issue of Nature Chemical Biology.

"Extracts of this medicinal plant have been used to treat a whole host of conditions and have been highly lauded for anti-inflammatory, immunosuppressive, contraceptive and antitumor activities," says Jun O. Liu, a professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins. "We've known about the active compound, triptolide, and that it stops cell growth, since 1972, but only now have we figured out what it does."

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In animal models, triptolide was effective against cancer, arthritis and skin graft rejection. It also has shown to block growth of all 60 U.S. National Cancer Institute cell lines, even killing some. Other experiments suggest it interferes with proteins known to activate genes, and that's what Lui and colleagues say could aid the cancer research.

They tested triptolide's effect on different proteins involved in gene control. They found it blocks the enzymatic activity of one, the XPB protein. That could explain the anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects and the researcher plan to study the relationship further.

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