Indulgent chocolate treats may be the best-known and most widely appreciated product of the cacao tree, but new scientific research from New York Based Cacao Biotechnologies is uncovering potential new applications for the antioxidant-rich beans which could spur an innovative approach to treating human papillomavirus (HPV), a precursor to cervical cancer.
The human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States, with an estimated 24 million active cases and 5.5 million new cases each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer in women with more than 12,000 cases reported in the U.S. each year.
HPV vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration are available, but they are not a cure and they can't effectively prevent all strains of HPV infection in those who are sexually active. Existing vaccines are only proven effective against a small number of high-risk, cancer-causing HPV strains and are not free of serious side effects including convulsions and paralysis. While condoms can reduce the risk of HPV infection, the virus can still be transmitted simply through skin contact of areas not covered by the condom. Vaccination will not cure someone who is already infected with the virus, so even with massive public health education campaigns, HPV will not soon be eradicated because it is so widely spread in the adult population.
According to Penny Hitchcock, Chief of the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Branch of the U.S. government's National Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, further research on topical microbicides and effective vaccines is critical.
Theobroma Cacao is the scientific name for the tree that bears fruit whose seeds are fermented and ground to produce the world's favorite sweet: chocolate. Theobroma Cacao translates from the Latin as "Food of the Gods." Brooklyn-based startup Cacao Biotechnologies was formed to develop innovative pharmaceuticals from Theobroma Cacao seeds, which are arguably the most chemically complex food known; over 4000 different alkaloids (and other active molecules) have already been identified in the seeds with at least as many yet to be.
From the end of World War I through the second World War the standard treatment for serious burns was to apply a tannin solution to the affected area. The solution would crust over the wound and the powerful antioxidant properties of the tannins would aid healing. Around the end of WWII doctors began to notice that some burn patients suffered kidney and liver failure and attributed it to the tannin treatment. By the time of the Korean War silver sulfadiazine, a sulfa drug ointment, replaced tannin solutions and to this day silver sulfadiazine remains the standard burn treatment used in all hospitals. In 2003, researchers in the Netherlands discovered that the supposedly pure tannin solutions used for burn treatment in the earlier part of this century were in fact crude extracts from tree bark which contained compounds other than the base tannins and these compounds were the cause of renal toxicity. Other doctors have since shown that liver failure in burn patients can be caused by changes in blood chemistry from the burn itself. (Multiple organ failure can still happen in severely burned patients today, but today's level of intensive care and monitoring has greatly reduced this possibility.) As a result of these new discoveries, several groups of scientists are actively investigating highly purified tannins as alternatives to sulfa drugs. Related, but much more potent compounds, epicatechin oligomers, have been purified from cacao seeds by Cacao Biotechnologies researchers for use in the treatment of burns.
Building on the work of Cacao Biotechnologies' co-founders Drs. Mark Guiltinan and Siela Maximova of Penn State University (who were team leaders for the international effort which sequenced the cacao genome, as published in Nature (see reference)), scientists Dr. Randall Murphy and Daniel Preston of Cacao Biotechnologies developed a suite of epicatechin-based super antioxidant compounds from cacao that are more than 200 times more potent than red wine and 1000 times more potent than green tea. Based on the shape and an analysis of their molecules they theorized that some epicatechin oligomers should also have strong antiviral properties. Testing proved their theory: they had developed a antiviral compound specifically powerful against HPV.
Because epicatechin oligomers are related to tannin, they are an effective burn treatment and so can be used to treat genital warts caused by HPV. (The current treatment for HPV genital warts is to burn them off using electro-cauterization, acid, or a laser. The post treatment regimen for healing the genital burn is topical silver sulfadiazine ointment, which is an antibacterial but not an antiviral.) Silver sulfadiazine does little to prevent the treated area from being reinfected or to help suppress or kill any part of the infection not eradicated by the burn treatment. However, Cacao Biotechnologies' epicatechin-based compound is both antibacterial and antiviral and may prove to be much more effective in post-operative treatment of the removal of HPV genital warts.
The Chinese Cancer Institute (Hospital), & the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences have developed a patented HPV cure based on tea epicatechins although the treatment has not been shown to work in all patients. This may be due to the weak efficacy of the epicatechin compounds that can be derived from tea. Cacao-based epicatechins are hundreds of times more potent.
New drug trials often take many years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in order to obtain FDA approval. However, because Cacao Biotechnologies' molecules are natural products derived from foods that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS), clinical trials can be carried out much more quickly and inexpensively. Cacao Biotechnologies is applying to the Food and Drug Administration and its European equivalent and expects to start Phase 1 clinical trials within the next six to nine months.
Newly Published Data in Nature Genetics Details Sequencing of Chocolate Genome
Researchers from Penn State University and the French agricultural research and development organization CIRAD have sequenced the complete genome of a Criollo strain of Theobroma Cacao and recently published the research in the journal Nature Genetics. Dr Mark Guiltinan, research team leader at Penn State, has already identified hundreds of genes potentially involved in pathogen resistance and even health benefits, all of which can be used to accelerate the development of, and insure the future thriving of elite varieties of cacao. (This research was funded, in part, by Cacao Biotechnologies.)
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