A team of researchers from the University of Barcelona (UB) has identified 17 bioactive compounds in winter snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis and Galanthus elwesii), the earliest flowering plants in Europe. Out of the alkaloids identified, three are new to science and belong to a group with potential applications in treating malaria and Alzheimer's disease.
"We have obtained three new alkaloids that had not previously been identified in nature," Jaume Bastida, co-author of the study and director of the UB's Department of Natural Products, Plant Biology and Edaphology, said. These nitrogenated organic compounds, which are extracted from plants or obtained through chemical synthesis, cause "notable" physiological reactions, meaning that some of them can be used for therapeutic purposes.
The researchers obtained 10 alkaloids from the winter snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), a bulbous plant that flowers in the snows of midwinter, and another seven from the Galanthus elwesii species, which originates in the Caucasus. Of the 17 alkaloids identified, three are new two sciences, and two obtained from G. nivalis are "haemantamines," while a third isolated in G. elwesii is a "licorine," according to an article in the journal Planta Medica.
The haemantamine-type alkaloids can cause highly selective apoptosis (programmed cell death involved in the control of development and growth). Some licorine derivatives, meanwhile, have anti-malarial action and can inhibit the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (which helps to degrade the neurotransmitter acetylcholine), meaning it has potential applications in treatments for Alzheimer's disease.
Several alkaloids found in Amaryllidaceae, the botanical family to which these two plants belong, are acetylcholinesterase (ACE) inhibitors, such as galantamin e, a substance that has already been patented, and which is used to treat mild to moderate cases of Alzheimer's disease. These patients have reduced levels of acetylcholine, but galantamine maintains its levels in the brain, blocking the action of the ACE. "In addition, it can act on nicotine receptors too, releasing greater amounts of acetylcholine, meaning it has a dual mechanism," adds Bastida.
The researcher points out, however, that the patent for galantamine "doesn't include just the compound itself, but also almost any of its derivatives, meaning it is difficult for any subsequent patent to include any derivatives from this class of compounds."
The samples used to carry out this research were collected at various sites in Bulgaria with the "explicit permission" of the relevant authorities, as these are protected species in the country
Picking winter snowdrops is also regulated in Spain, although Bastida says that "in cases where we need to study protected bulbous species such as these we first micropropagate them in vitro and later grow them in the conventional way in order to limit any impact on natural populations, as far as is possible."
Journal reference: Strahil Berkov, Marํa Cuadrado, Edison Osorio, Francesc Viladomat, Carles Codina y Jaume Bastida. Planta Medica 75 (12): 1351-1355, 2009.
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