Malaria drug to treat asthma?

Dr Ho (left) and Prof Wong are part of the NUS team which found that the herb-based drug produces fewer side effects when used to treat asthma.
PHOTO: Malaria drug to treat asthma?

SINGAPORE - Those suffering from asthma may soon find better relief for their condition with a herb-based drug that is commonly used to treat malaria.

The drug, called artesunate, produces fewer side effects than the most potent steroid treatment currently available, revealed a team of researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) yesterday.

It is also able to prevent the respiratory airways from becoming inflamed, which causes recurring periods of wheezing, chest tightness, coughing and shortness of breath in asthmatic patients.

Asthma is a "lifelong disease", noted Eugene Ho, a recent PhD graduate from the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health who is part of the team.

But he pointed out that prolonged use of steroids, which are commonly used in treating asthma, could be "harmful to the body system".

"While such drugs can be very effective in reducing inflammation in respiratory airways, they can affect metabolism in the body, which then leads to issues such as obesity and osteoporosis, and it also makes one more vulnerable to infections."

In Singapore, more than 5 per cent of adults and 20 per cent of children suffer from asthma.

Another problem with steroid use is that some patients do not respond well to it, added Dr Ho.

"With artesunate, patients may eventually be able to access a safer and more effective alternative to control their asthma," he said.

Artesunate is derived from a herb called sweet wormwood, which is typically used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fever and chills.

During experiments on human cells, the herb-based drug has been effective, said Fred Wong, who led the team and also heads the Department of Pharmacology at NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

The team plans to work with industry partners to test the effects of artesunate on asthma patients, and hopes to carry out its first clinical trial in two years' time.

However, medical experts My Paper spoke to had their reservations about the use of artesunate.

Augustine Tee, chief of the Department of Respiratory & Critical Care Medicine at Changi General Hospital, said that there seems to be "some potential" for the drug in an experimental lab setting.

"But more studies need to be done in actual asthmatics before we can conclude it is actually effective," he said.

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