Keep taking the broccoli, says British pharma company

1st October 2017

Pharma companies are turning to natural remedies as the pipeline of synthetic drugs dries up

Broccoli: an essential part of a Sunday roast, a good source of vitamins and even, some say, a weight-loss aid. But a ground-breaking cure for cancer? One British drugs developer thinks so. Evgen Pharma says it has harnessed the power of the vegetable to treat life-threatening conditions — giving new relevance to childhood warnings to “eat your greens”.

The AIM-listed company is designing drugs using sulforaphane, a compound found in broccoli. Its treatments have been shown to kill cancer cells and improve the prospects of stroke patients. While studies have long suggested that certain “superfoods” can help fight cancer, highly-concentrated doses are now being developed.

Evgen is not alone in seeking help from Mother Nature, which has been neglected in favour of lab-designed chemicals since the 1980s. Oceans, garden plants and mind-altering weeds are being plundered for 21st century cures — creating what has been dubbed a golden age for natural medicine.

“We have only scratched the surface of understanding the molecular diversity of plants and microbes,” said Stephen Franklin, chief executive of Cheshire-based Evgen. “Nature has presented us with an inexhaustible diversity of complex molecules.”

Critics of high-throughput screening — which uses automation to assess the quality and effectiveness of a large number of compounds at once — say it is not delivering the promised flood of new drugs.

“Industry has to realise that practically nothing has come out of this type of screening,” said Michael Heinrich, professor of medicinal plant research at University College London. Drug pipelines are drying up, leading scientists to diversify, he said. Companies in Germany and Switzerland are particularly active in the field of natural products.

Evgen is working with a compound discovered 25 years ago in a laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. At the time, researchers could not work out how to stabilise sulforaphane for effective use in drugs. Evgen has solved the puzzle, allowing a potent version of the compound to be given to patients. Its first drug — SFX-01 — is being tested on patients with subarachnoid haemorrhage, a form of stroke, and breast cancer. For the latter, it has been shown to target cancer stem cells in women who are resistant to hormone therapy.


  • $5 trillion How much the trade is expected to be worth by 2050
  • 5%-15% The percentage of the world’s plants tested for their therapeutic properties 

Franklin, 49, hopes the drug — now in phase II clinical trials — will transform breast cancer into a chronic condition rather than a death sentence for women in which it has spread significantly.

Evgen is not alone. In 2007, the World Health Organisation estimated that the plant-derived drugs trade was worth about $100bn. The figure is expected to reach $5 trillion by 2050. That means big pharma becoming more involved.

Small drug developers have done a lot of the work up to now. However, the Swiss giant Novartis has a string of partnerships working on regenerative medicine and malaria, among others.

The opportunity is huge. Only 5% to 15% of the world’s known plants have been tested for therapeutic potential, according to research, which means there are still millions that could hold the key to cures. That’s before the potential of marine organisms, such as sea sponges, is examined.

Written evidence of the use of natural remedies dates back about 5,000 years. More recent discoveries include, of course, penicillin — developed by Alexander Fleming in 1928 after he noticed the effect of mould in a Petri dish. Willow bark was used for millenniums to reduce fever before aspirin was developed.

Today, a series of drugs derived from cannabis is being developed by GW Pharmaceuticals, which is based in Cambridge, but listed in New York. It grows the plants in vast greenhouses, and is gearing up for the launch of Epidiolex — a treatment for drug-resistant epilepsy. “There was interesting science around the cannabis plant that had been overlooked in the modern era,” said Justin Gover, 46, the chief executive of GW. In the 1,000 children who have been given Epidiolex before its full approval, there has been a 40%-50% reduction in the number of fits, he said.

GW has developed — through selective breeding — a form of cannabis with a lower proportion of the plant’s psychoactive substance. It means patients can experience the medicinal benefits without the mind-altering effects.

In 2010, the company launched Sativex, the world’s first prescription cannabis drug. It is taken by multiple sclerosis patients.

The mind-altering effects of magic mushrooms may, though, prove lucrative for a London company. Compass Pathways is to conduct a clinical trial of 400 people with a form of depression resistant to existing treatments. The hope is that psilocybin, the natural psychedelic ingredient in the mushroom, will improve their condition.

AIM-listed Amryt Pharma is preparing to launch a treatment for epidermolysis bullosa, a rare genetic disorder which causes skin to tear at the slightest touch. Young sufferers are known as butterfly children. Amryt’s Oleogel, derived from birch tree bark, has been shown to help their wounds heal more quickly.

Science has moved on since Fleming stumbled upon penicillin. Drug companies are developing ways to use the immune system to fight cancer, vaccines to combat HIV and how to edit the human genome to eradicate genetic conditions. Companies such as Evgen and GW, however, are proving that nature can tackle 21st century conditions.


 Sabah Meddings – The Sunday Times