Professor boosts healing power of herb
The Chinese herbal remedy lei gong teng has helped Professor Yang Dan win a national science prize - even though she has never seen the actual herb.
Yang, a chemistry professor at the University of Hong Kong, found a way in the laboratory to separate the active ingredients of the herb - used to treat kidney inflammation, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer - from its toxic element, greatly expanding the potential use of the medicine.
For her efforts she has become one of 10 scientists to win the Chinese Young Women in Science Fellowship award this year. It is the first time Hong Kong has nominated candidates for the award, which recognises achievements of female scientists aged up to 45.
Yang, 45, spent seven years researching the herb, but did not see any results until last year.
'Many scientists have tried extracting the active ingredient in the herb before, but no one had succeeded. Most were looking in the wrong direction,' she said, 'I feel like I have dug up a piece of gold.'
Her breakthrough came after she synthesised triptolide, one of the herb's components, in the laboratory. 'There is very little triptolide in natural lei gong teng, and making it out of chemicals gave me more freedom to reorganise its structures,' she said.
She said that with the toxic element removed, the herb could be an effective treatment for various cancers with very few side effects. But it would take at least a decade for the compound to go through tests and clinical trials before it could be made into actual medications.
She has not published any findings during her seven years' research but will do so this year after applying for a patent.
The project cost more than HK$15 million and Yang said looking for funding was the hardest part.
'Investors only want to support projects in their middle or final stages. No one wants to take risks and pour cash into a project in its initial stage.'
She said Hong Kong's research was of very high standard and could do well in drug development, but the government should give more support to the city's young scientists.
'Some students told me they wanted to become drug developers, but many ended up being teaching assistants at secondary schools and salesmen when they could not find support for their research.'
Yang has also discovered a way to treat the genetic disease cystic fibrosis by creating an artificial ion passage in the cells of patients' lungs.
Working 10 hours a day, Yang has little time for her family. Sometimes her three daughters, aged from three to 14, have told her not to go to work. 'They're very sensible though. When I tell them I needed to go, they understand,' she said.
Yang developed an interest in organic chemistry in secondary school.
'I like working in fields related to life,' she said. 'There is a lot in Chinese remedies. Why don't we dig deeper into it?' she said, 'If we could understand their mechanisms and chemically combine the active ingredients, the drugs would become easy and cheap to make.'