Bitter gourd, a plant long held to have anti-diabetic properties, is to be turned into tablets in Egypt and hope will provide an alternative to insulin injections. – Reuters Photo

CAIRO: Bitter gourd, a plant long held to have anti-diabetic properties, is to be turned into tablets that Egyptian scientists hope will provide an alternative to insulin injections.

A national pharmaceutical company and the National Research Centre (NRC) signed a contract last month for the manufacture of a drug based on an extract from the fruit, which is also known as balsam pear (Momordica charantia).

The deal follows research done by the Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Department of the NRC.

Souad El Gengaihi, professor of medicinal and aromatic plants at the NRC, and lead researcher on the new treatment, told SciDev.Net that balsam pear, which grows in Asia and parts of Latin America in hot, sandy locations, is traditionally used in Asian medicine.

"Its most basic use is to help with gastrointestinal issues, but many studies done in different countries have shown that it can help people who are coping with diabetes," she said.

Balsam pear extract has a chemical structure similar to bovine insulin. The NRC's innovation was to devise a new method for extracting the active ingredient and turning it into pills, say researchers.

"Insulin is broken down by stomach enzymes if taken orally, which is why diabetic patients have to take it through injection," said Moushira Abd Al Salam, a researcher in the NRC's Medical Research Division. "The active ingredient in balsam pear has a special coating that prevents stomach enzymes from breaking it down."

Salam said that, in unpublished studies, balsam pear extract controlled the blood sugar levels of diabetic volunteers.

Khaled Abd El-Wahab, professor of internal disease at the University of Zagazig, Egypt, said that the tablets would be "an important step", as they have been scientifically tested, unlike the many untested medical herbs sold in markets.

"This plant well grows well in hot weather and on sandy lands so it does well in Egypt deserts and could be grown in most of the Middle East and North Africa," El Genhaihi added.

But Yasser Abdel-Wahab, an expert in natural anti-diabetic drugs at the UK's University of Ulster, said: "Of the 800 known traditional remedies for diabetes, none can be used as a complete treatment in their natural form. Prescription drugs are needed in addition to successfully manage the disease".

He said it is unlikely that the unmodified balsam pear extract will alone be adequate treatment for full-blown diabetes but that the pills might make a valuable addition to the tool box.

A review of published studies of balsam pear extract produced last year by the UK's Cochrane Collaboration, which surveys the evidence behind medical treatments, concluded that "the current evidence does not warrant using the plant in treating this disease".

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