The curry cure

By Katy Nielsen

The golden-colored Indian spice turmeric, or curcumin, has been used as a medicinal remedy in India for centuries. The recent development of a hybrid drug derived from the spice—currently being tested in the U.S.—may be the key to repairing damaged brain cells in stroke and head trauma patients.

The study, titled “New hybrid drug, derived from common spice, may protect, rebuild brain cells after stroke,”released on Feb. 9, documents significant benefit on cell development of a tumeric hybrid compound called CNB-001.

In the study, conducted by research scientist Paul A. Lapchak, director of translational research in the Department of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, scientists administered CNB-001 to rats within an hour of a stroke. This is a time frame comparable to three hours after a stroke in humans. According to the research, the drug significantly reduced motor impairment.

“It would be really great to have a new compound that would start rebuilding the brain or brain pathways,” Lapchak said.

Scientists have discovered CNB-001 causes cell survival and growth. It repairs neurons,which are the building blocks of brain cells.

According to Lapchak, in addition to helping stroke patients, CNB-001 seems to promote memory retrieval following traumatic brain injury and help patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Lapchak and his team are working to create new analogs or chemical derivations of CNB-001 in case they discover problems with one of the molecules along the way.

“We haven’t had any problems with this so far,” he said. “We’re taking this one step at a time.”

Despite the findings, one difficulty scientists are confronting is the mixed information available about the scientific research on curcumin. The findings are often inconsistent.

“It’s frustrating. A lot of the literature comes out of Asia and hasn’t been reproduced in North America,” Lapchak said. “There’s research across the world that’s all different quality.”

Curcumin and similar natural products are used as medicine in India and other countries in Asia, but the pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. are currently not interested in developing them into useable drugs due to patent issues, according to David R. Schubert, professor and laboratory head of the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California and member of Lapchak’s research team.

For years, scientists struggled with how to repair brain cells in stroke victims. Currently, one drug, tissue plasminogen activator, is approved for ischemic stroke, which occurs when a clot blocks blood flow to the brain.

According to Schubert, tPA is effective in 20 percent of the cases, and it sometimes causes internal bleeding and can lead to death.

“Our drug [CNB-001] directly protects nerve cells from dying and does not cause bleeding from damaged blood vessels,” Schubert said.

Patrick D. Lyden, chairman of Cedars-Sinai’s Department of Neurology, was an integral part of a trial that resulted in the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of tPA in 1996. Now, Lyden is working with Lapchak and his team on the

developing research.

“I’m optimistic an effective treatment can emerge,” Lyden said. “The trials take a while and must be done well. [It is] expensive and complicated, but once the trial work is done, the package for the FDA is fairly straightforward.”

To get FDA approval for the hybrid drug, Lapchak and his team need to show there are no negative effects or serious health risks caused by CNB-001.

“We try to use a rational drug development approach, which has a lot of steps involved in it,” Lapchak said of the process his current team is going through. “The final step is clinical trial, and there are always surprises to be had there.”

If the research stays on track, scientists involved in the curcumin study expect to begin clinical trials with human patients in the near future.