To look at, this ball-shaped plant is something you'd ignore, or if actually taken notice of, you might just kick it. Yet the inconspicuous Jamaican ball moss was what Dr Henry Lowe announced two years ago as one of two plants endemic to the island and which he and his American research partner Dr Joseph Bryant found to have anti-cancer properties.
Two years later, that work has gained preliminary approval from the United States Patent Office, where a backlog of applications could mean it takes several more years for final approval.
Lowe, the head of the Environmental Health Foundation (EHF), claims that following successful tests on tumours grown on rats, the ball moss extract has shown to be more potent than leading anti-cancer drug Taxol, and with reduced side effects. It was during ongoing tests by Bryant at the University of Maryland Institute of Human Virology (IHV) that something interesting happened, again.
Test tube tests have shown it to be successful at controlling the AIDS/HIV virus, Bryant reported back to Lowe.
"Additional work has revealed anti-HIV potential in the drug, which is being worked on. It is preliminary because we have been concentrating on the cancer but we will give answers on those things before the end of the year," Lowe told the Observer.
Already known in Jamaica for his research into the medical uses of local plant extracts, including ganja, Lowe, who was named the Observer Business Leader for 2006, had hoped that with anti-cancer properties alone, his discovery could create a local industry.
He has now entered into a partnership with fellow scientist Errol Morrison, president of the University of Technology, to establish an off-campus facility dedicated to researching the medical potential of Jamaican plants.
"You have to have people to do the work, so I've already arranged for three students and one staff from the Biochemistry Department at UWI to go to the University of Maryland for training," said Lowe. "And in addition, right here in Jamaica, I have arranged for five scholarships locally to be working on local products to evaluate their potential as possible drugs."
The UWI (University of the West Indies) is already involved with the ball moss project, testing its potency on other diseases.
The next stage will be to conduct tests on rats infected with the HIV virus. Meanwhile, the first clinical anti-cancer trials on humans are scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2009, having already proved successful with rats.
But Lowe said he now finds himself in a race to produce a commercial version of the drug, having had to reveal details in his patent application, which could be of advantage to a competitor. He had previously declined to reveal the name of the plant until the patent application was accepted just last month. Work on the second plant remains less advanced than with the ball moss.
"If you wait too long, somebody could get ahead of you because once this patent is published it is open to everyone else, so you have to stay ahead," said Lowe.
Since the first press reports in December 2006, people have been regularly contacting Lowe, desperate to gain samples to help them, a friend or relative stricken by cancer. But only until proven safe can these people be catered to, he said.
Lowe said he has sufficient financial backing to carry the cancer research through the first clinical trial and even to produce a crude version of the anti-cancer drug. He has also been advised by lawyers to avoid contact with major pharmaceutical companies in an effort to retain maximum control over the work.
"It makes sense for you to take it to a stage where you have a say in its future, which makes it crucial to have the resources to take it to that level," he said. "However, it takes about US$1 billion to take a drug to the market, which can only come from big pharmaceuticals."
Lowe is unsure when the drug could become commercially available, but remains hopeful that when it does, some of the production could remain in Jamaica.
Already, the research work has spread from Jamaica across the United States and Canada using three laboratories besides IHV.
He has been invited to Germany where he is to present his work to the 100th anniversary celebration of the Nobel Prize awarded to German chemist Paul Ehrlich, pioneer of chemotherapy. The conference will discuss so-called 'Magic Bullets' - the term associated with Ehrlich that describe drugs that kill only the targeted organisms.
The hope for Lowe is that ball moss will prove to be Jamaica's very own Magic Bullet and not suffer the fate of periwinkle, long used in folklore medicine to treat diabetes. In the 1950s, local work on periwinkle spread to Canada, where it was used to produce the leading leukemia drugs Vinblastine and Vincristine.
Jamaica received no economic benefit.