For thousands of years, neem has been used as a preventive medicine and a remedy for diverse purposes. Its prevalence and usage is common all over South and South-east Asia. In fact, in India it is known as ‘the village pharmacy’ because of its healing versatility, and has been traditionally used in ayurvedic medicine. The seeds, bark and leaves of the neem tree contain proven antiseptic, antiviral, antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcer and antifungal properties. The Sanskrit name nimba, from which the word ‘neem’ is derived, comes from the term nimbati syasthyamdadati which means ‘to give good health’.
To its plethora of uses has been added a new one, as a drug to fight cancer, and this path-breaking discovery has been made by none other than scientists from Kolkata. A team led by Rathindranath Baral of Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI) achieved this breakthrough. The team comprised Subhashsis Barik, Saptak Banerjee, Atanu Mallik, Kuntal Kanti Goswami and Soumyabrata Ray of CNCI, and was assisted by Subrata Laskar of Burdwan University and Anamika Bose of Bose Institute. The study has been published in the peer-reviewed journal, PLOS ONE.
A glycoprotein (a type of complex protein) called Neem Leaf Glycoprotein (NLGP) was extracted by the team, which was found to slow down the growth of cancerous tumours. The experiments with NLGP have been very successful on mice.
NLGP works by modulating the immune cells present within cancer tumours. Immune cells are the cells which are responsible for defending the body, by preventing the entry of harmful elements. However, when cancer cells start growing within any part of the body, they enslave these soldier cells. Thus the immune cells become ineffective.
The newly discovered glycoprotein acts as a liberator. It spurs these cells towards normalcy, and towards regaining of their role as protector, which becomes debilitating for the cancer cells. The cancer cells, deprived of their suitable conditions for growth and under constant attack by the reinvigorated immune cells, die out. Thus the neem extract is a double-edged sword. It not only kills the cancerous cells, but also prevents their future growth by re-energising the cellular environment.
Seven long years of research have at last borne fruit. Now it is time for the final phase - clinical trials on humans. As Rathindranath Baral said on the achievement to The Times of India, “The patent has been cleared and we are working on the application to be filed with the Drug Controller. Among other things, we shall have to prove that the extract has no toxic effects. We are confident of clearing the hurdle. Once that happens, clinical trials will follow and it shouldn't be difficult to convert the extract into a drug."
Hopefully, pharmaceutical companies would take up the commercial production of the drug as soon as it passes all trials. Oncologist Subir Ganguly said the breakthrough was encouraging, but to be a success, “the drug needs to be cost-effective”.
Clearly, such an achievement by scientists from the city will invigorate more students to take up research and also rejuvenate the scientific community in the city.