Chinese herb may treat autoimmune diseases
Study shows herb from hydrangea root targets specific immune responses
4 June, 2009 - A medicine derived from a herb used in Chinese medicine for
2,000 years is the first to target specific cells that are overactive in
rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and other autoimmune diseases.
The ancient herb is chang shan, from the root of the blue evergreen
hydrangea. It's been used in Chinese medicine to reduce fever and fight
The herb's active compound, febrifugine, is too toxic for use as a modern
medicine. In the 1960s, US Army scientists created a febrifugine derivative
called halofuginone as a possible malaria medicine, but further study was soon
More recently, halofuginone was found to reduce skin collagen and was tested
as a possible treatment for scleroderma. But until now, no-one knew how the
That may be because the medicine’s target - a specific kind of immune cell
called a Th17 cell - was identified only in 2006. But now Harvard Medical
School researchers Mark S. Sundrud, PhD, Anjana Rao, PhD, and colleagues show
that halofuginone does indeed inhibit Th17 cells.
That's important because Th17 cells regulate autoimmune inflammatory
responses. That's the kind of immune response responsible for a wide range of
diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple
sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, eczema and psoriasis.
‘Halofuginone may herald a revolution in the treatment of certain types of
autoimmune and inflammatory diseases’, Rao says in a news release.
Why? Current medicines for autoimmune diseases take a sledgehammer approach
- they break down many different immune responses, leaving patients vulnerable
to infections and cancers.
A medicine that can specifically inhibit one type of immune response would
be a major breakthrough. Halofuginone may turn out to be such a medicine.
‘This is really the first description of a small molecule that interferes
with autoimmune pathology but is not a general immune suppressant’, Sundrud
says in the news release.
An added bonus: Halofuginone could probably be taken orally, rather than by
Yet the findings by Sundrud and Rao are based only on mouse studies. They
must be refined and confirmed in humans before any actual medicine is
Sundrud and Rao report their findings in the 5 June issue of