You may not have heard of the “Devil’s Apple,” but it may hold the key to fighting mesothelioma and related asbestos cancers. In fact, extracts from the solanum plant, a weed that grows wild in the arid country of western Australia, have been used to treat cancerous lesions for over 180 years. Only over the last two decades has any serious research been conducted on this common, yet remarkable plant, however. The key appears to be special chain of sugar molecules, known as glycosides. These glycosides have properties that inhibit the growth of cancerous tumors. A full explanation of the drug’s mechanism is highly complex. In simple terms, however, these glycosides essentially enter the cancer cells and interfere with the biological processes that allow them to live virtually forever–or at least until the growth of the cancer interferes with the functioning of the host body’s internal organs. Herein lies the great irony of cancer, and the challenge faced by oncology researchers. Normal cells experience apoptosis, or “cell death.” Cancer cells do not die; rather they continue to multiply and grow until they cause affected organs to shut down.
One problem this poses for cancer treatment is the fact that cancer cells are essentially the body’s own cells, not foreign invaders; thus, antibodies that normally fight off infections do not “see” cancer cells. Coramsine(TM)/SBP002 has so far been one of the most promising treatments for several different types of cancer, including mesothelioma, which is a virtual epidemic in Australia. For nearly seven years, this drug has been undergoing trials; Phase III was scheduled to start in 2006 once the company had found a U.S. partner. However, except for limited use on human subjects (allowed in certain circumstances for “compassionate use” under Australian law), tests have not progressed far beyond lab animals. The solanum plant–known variously as the “Devil’s Apple,” and the “Apple of Sodom” is actually native to South Africa, and is considered invasive to Australia. Related to deadly nightshade, it bears a small, tomato-like fruit that is quite toxic. Coramsine/SBP002 is the product of Solbec Ltd., an Australian biotech firm.